Key Bill of the Year Limits Social Media Manipulation of Children

It may not seem so at first glance, but there is a growing realization that the most important bill California lawmakers will consider this year is not about housing, homelessness, abortion, forest fires or taxes. On the contrary, it is the one that could force the gigantic electronic companies to lay off our teenagers and stop trying to make them dependent for profit.

If most adults weren’t yet aware of the potentially life-altering effects of children staring at screens for hours, a year or more watching school children struggle to learn while working on computers programmed to help them, not to exploiting them, probably provided some understanding.

But even though computer programs and learning sessions struggled to hold children’s attention, there was no reduction in young people’s reliance on more glitzy screen programs like Tik-Tok and Instagram, designed not to help them learn, but rather to manipulate them in myriads. other ways.

In his landmark 2015 book “The Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, the Harvard-educated, Walnut Creek-based Ph.D. psychologist Richard Freed asserted that “we must stop accepting on faith the gadget-dominated life forced upon our children…The push to give our children so many recreational devices is based on inaccurate notions…”

The widespread emphasis on “STEM” education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) rather than subjects like history or English composition contributes to parents’ acceptance of a myriad of screens in the lives of their children. It made social media a vital part of many – perhaps most – childhoods.

But big tech companies led by Facebook, owner of Instagram, use algorithms to mine information about users, selling that information to advertisers who then send personalized content and ads.

Enter the current Assembly Bill 2408, sponsored by Assembly members Jordan Cunningham, a Republican from San Luis Obispo and Democrat Buffy Wicks from Oakland.

The bill’s preamble cites internal Facebook research showing the company is aware that “serious harm is being done to children,” who are becoming less connected to family and school as they grow older. become addicted to Instagram and similar media.

This is done through targeted videos and notifications that appear around the clock and endless scrolling designed to keep users on a particular site.

The preamble adds that girls have a higher prevalence of screen addiction than boys and that girls who admit to excessive use of social media are two to three times more likely than boys to be depressed, a condition that can lead to suicide. And it says an internal Facebook message board reported that 66% of teenage girls on Instagram experience “negative social comparison,” often leading to low self-esteem, which can precede depression.

The bill’s solution is to prohibit social media platforms with parent companies with annual revenues exceeding $100 million from creating addiction for any child user through the use or sale of personal data. This would allow parents and guardians to sue for up to $25,000 per violation, with no cap on total liability.

Lawmakers are generally loath to create new grounds for lawsuits against California companies, but this bill passed the Assembly by a 51-0 vote, with no explanation for why the other 29 members of that house did not vote.

Psychologist Freed, who testified in favor of the bill at a committee hearing, said it could reduce what he called “an epidemic of depression and suicidality among girls”. Indeed, as the bill’s preamble notes, “numerous studies show that reducing social media use (has great) mental health benefits.”

The state Senate will now try to help mental health in California by following the Assembly and approving the bill, with Governor Gavin Newsom – a parent of four preteen children – likely to sign it without hesitation.

And if California enacts this, expect other states to follow, as they often have on unrelated measures like the Proposition 13 property tax cuts and that state’s rules on the smog.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected] or visit californiafocus.net.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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