A proposal introduced in the California State Assembly would allow parents in the state to sue social media companies that “knew or should have known” that their products were addictive to children.
The legislation, formally titled Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, states that companies “intentionally invent, design, and deploy” features that are intended to make it hard for users to stop using their social media platforms, including employing the same techniques as gambling firms.
Democrat Buffy Wicks and Republican Jordan Cunningham are the co-sponsors.
“Addicted consumers are particularly profitable because their consumption behavior goes beyond normal engagement levels,” the measure states, noting that many users spend even more time on social media when they engage with content that makes them unhappier or unhealthier.
If enacted, individual and class action lawsuits would be permitted against companies with more than $100 million a year in revenue if they developed or implemented features into their social media platforms “that were known, or should have been known” to be addictive to child users.
Parents would be able to sue companies for damages up to $250,000 per child per year of violation, or $1,000 per child per year of violation in a class-action suit. The sued companies would have the burden of proving that their social media platforms didn’t cause or exacerbate alleged damages to child users, including suicide, mental illness, eating disorders, and emotional distress.
Social media companies that intentionally make children addicted should also pay the consequential social cost, Cunningham told the Los Angeles Times.
“We do this with any product you sell to kids. You have to make sure it’s safe,” he said. “Some sort of stuffed animal or something that you’re selling to parents that are going to put it in their 5-year-old’s bed—you can’t have toxic chemicals in it. We just haven’t done that as a society, yet, when it comes to social media. And I think the time is now to do that.”
The proposal is California lawmakers’ latest response to internal documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. The files, which have drawn national attention and bipartisan criticism, suggested that Facebook, now called Meta, was pushing to launch an “Instagram Kids” app while being aware of the negative effects Instagram has had on young users’ mental health.
According to one of the studies allegedly downplayed by Facebook, Instagram made body image issues worse in one out of three teenage girls.
Earlier this month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an investigation into whether the TikTok video-focused app poses mental health risks similar to those described in documents shared by Haugen. In November 2021, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a $100 billion lawsuit against Meta, alleging that it misled investors about the effects of its products on children.
In his State of the Union Address on March 1, President Joe Biden also promised to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.” Haugen, who testified twice before by Congress, was in the audience.
“It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children,” said Biden, who has been advocating to repeal Section 230, an internet law protecting social media companies from lawsuits over content generated by users.