A new bill coming down the pike in the California state legislature could be a huge swing in precedent for parents’ ability to sue companies for what some consider addictive online content.
The Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act passed the state assembly on Monday and now goes to the state senate. The bill cites the framework of the existing California Consumer Privacy Act, which restricts companies from selling personal information of young people under 16, to impose a “duty not to addict” young users under 18. A successful lawsuit could equal up to $25,000 in damages.
The bill only applies to companies that made $100 million in revenue over the past year, and it also excludes streaming services as well as apps that only allow email or text messaging. Everything else is fair game.
Lawmakers pointed to the Facebook Papers, where internal documents showed workers at the social media company were concerned about the impact they were having on youth. Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, said the highest rate of addiction on their platforms was with 14-year-olds.
The bill’s advocates from places such as the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego say that parental controls can’t be the answer to addiction, comparing it to tobacco companies giving parents nicotine patches to have them halt addiction. A recent study from the nonprofit research group Common Sense Media showed that there was a 17% increase in screen-time for teens and tweens over the last two years. The study further says social media use of kids aged 8 to 12 has increased from 31% in 2019 to 38% in 2021. The vast majority of teens have used social media.
The bill defines addiction as people who are harmed either physically, mentally, or emotionally, who want to stop but find they can’t because of the platform’s nature.
Trade groups aren’t for it, of course. AP reported that TechNet, a network of tech executives, wrote a letter to California legislators saying that the platforms would effectively have to ban all kids under 18 and would require them to “implement stringent age-verification in order to ensure that adolescents did not use their sites.”
If the bill becomes law, companies would have from Jan. 1 next year until April 1 to remove features deemed “addictive” or risk lawsuits. Companies that conduct quarterly self-audits of their practices to remove addicting features would also be immune to lawsuits. The proposed bill’s text does not elaborate on what entity would review whether companies were removing the so-called “addictive” features, nor does it elaborate which specific features of these platforms are considered most addictive.
But despite what may be a noble goal, California’s bill is in strange company. In a way, it’s similar to bills passed in Texas and Florida that allow people to sue social media companies, though in their case for moderating user’s posted content or accounts. Florida’s anti-social law has been stamped down by the courts, but separate judges lifted a temporary injunction on the Texas law. Trade groups representing social media and tech companies have filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.