California lawmakers are back in Sacramento this week after a month-long summer recess, and one of the first big bills they’re teeing up would allow public prosecutors to sue social media companies for using designs they know are addicting to kids.
Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham is co-sponsoring the bill with Democrat Buffy Wicks, and he represents parts of the Central Coast, including Lompoc, San Luis Obispo, and Paso Robles.
He explains the need for this bill: “We have a youth mental health crisis on our hands. You can look at any … studies by the Surgeon General, by the CDC. And you've seen … a rise in teenage depression, a rise in teenagers’ attempted suicides, a rise in teenagers reporting eating disorders. Now I'm not here to tell you that social media is to blame for all of that, but it's certainly a contributory factor.”
He says the bill would do two things. First, it would make it illegal to design a social media feature that would addict kids. “These companies have been able to … conduct what I would call an unfettered social experiment on the brains of kids and teenagers for a long, long time. So we need a statement law that says you can no longer do that.”
Secondly, if companies don’t comply with the law, then public prosecutors, state district attorneys, the four large city attorneys, or the state attorney general could bring forth a lawsuit to “seek injunctive relief or penalties.”
The bill does not tell companies who they can allow as users and what content they’re allowed to post, Cunningham points out.
When it comes to defining addiction, he gives examples of endless scrolls and 24-hour push notifications.
“We're talking about the widgets and gizmos running in the background when … a 13-year-old is on Instagram or is on TikTok or what have you — that's creating an impulse to use the product all of the time. And we're using the medical definition of addiction that has been accepted widely throughout the country for a long, long time.”
If the bill becomes law, he says, everything will be sorted out on a case-by-case basis. Plus, companies can get safe harbor from civil damages if they can disable — within a reasonable period of time — a feature they discover is addictive.
What about the argument that you can turn off push notifications and use parental controls? Cunningham responds: “Why should the onus be on the parents? They're not the ones creating the product that the kids are getting addicted to. That's the company that's creating the product. Secondly, I can tell you as a parent of three teenagers and a second grader — you don't have a chance.”
Cunningham says he hopes to get the bill to the governor for his signature by the time the Assembly enters recess this year.
He adds, “Are they going to fight it in court? Absolutely they are. Are they fighting it in the State Capitol, lobbying against it? Absolutely they are. But I would add: They're on the wrong side of public opinion. … There was a statewide survey of California voters, and 82% of likely voters … agreed with the statement that big tech and lawmakers should do more to protect kids online. It is very hard to get 82% of people today to agree on anything.”