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Cunningham bill takes aim at social media companies 

A new California bill aims to hold tech companies accountable for intentionally getting kids addicted to social media apps.

If passed, the Social Media Duty to Children Act would allow legal action to be taken against social media companies for designing algorithms that cause excessive use and addiction among minors. It would create liability in cases where children are harmed by social media addiction—and would even allow for retroactive application of the law (lawsuits against companies' past actions).

click to enlarge MALLEABLE MINDS Studies show that younger brains are more vulnerable to social media addiction and the harms associated with it. A new bill seeks to hold tech companies accountable for knowingly addicting kids. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • MALLEABLE MINDS Studies show that younger brains are more vulnerable to social media addiction and the harms associated with it. A new bill seeks to hold tech companies accountable for knowingly addicting kids.

Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo), the bill's co-author, likens it to tobacco companies that intentionally got children addicted to cigarettes.

"More specifically, tobacco litigation brought on behalf of minors that were marketed to got hooked on cigarettes when they were 15," Cunningham said. "That's where [retroactive application of civil law] makes sense."

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it's unequivocal that young people's brains are the most vulnerable to social media.

"Starting around age 10, children's brains undergo a fundamental shift that spurs them to seek social rewards, including attention and approval from their peers," the APA said in a Feb. 3 article. "At the same time, we hand them smartphones."

According to the APA, research shows that younger social media users are more likely to have body image issues. Other studies show that kids who use Instagram or Snapchat before age 11 are more likely to experience online harassment, the article states.

"If you look at any data point—national, state, local—we're seeing an epidemic in terms of mental issues with our minors, especially our teenagers," Cunningham said. "The rates of anxiety, eating disorders, hospital admissions, depression, loneliness, it's all moving in the wrong direction and going through the roof."

As former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower Frances Haugen brought to light in 2021, social media companies know that their algorithms are addictive and harmful.

"According to Facebook's own internal data, which came out in the whistleblower testimony, as many as 15 to 20 percent of young users were displaying both signs of addiction to the social media product, and also were having issues which required in some cases psychiatric or medical care," Cunningham said.

The bill, which Cunningham co-authored with Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Alameda), will now go through committee hearings before being put to a vote by the state Assembly, then the Senate, and landing on the governor's desk. Cunningham said he's bracing for some major opposition from big social media companies.

"We've got an uphill climb," he said. "These companies are very wealthy, they have very expensive lobbyists, they have a lot of lawyers. As much support locally and media attention nationally as this has gotten, I think it's going to be a heavy lift. But I think it's the right thing to do." Δ

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