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California Bill Aimed at Penalizing Social Media Companies for Harm to Children Moves Forward

The bill would enact penalties for social media companies who knowingly cause social media addiction in kids

NBC Universal, Inc.

A Bay Area lawmaker's push to punish social media content that harms children took a big step forward on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 287, authored by California State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would require social media companies to perform regular audits to show they are not causing social media addiction in people under the age of 18. The bill also would punish social media companies for knowingly harming children in a variety of ways including:

  • Allowing kids to receive content that allows them to buy illegal drugs
  • Causing kids to inflict harm on themselves or others
  • Causing kids to develop eating disorders
  • Allowing kids to receive content that would allow them to purchase illegal firearms

If a company knowingly violated this bill, it could be subject to a civil penalty of up to $250,000 per violation.

Tuesday, the bill passed through the California Senate Judiciary Committee with an 8-0 vote.

“With SB 287 moving forward, California is one step closer to holding social media platforms accountable and stopping them from targeting users with dangerous information via specialized algorithms, especially our kids,” Senator Skinner said in a statement Wednesday. Skinner has emphasized the ways in which social media platforms have been used to sell untraceable ghost guns and drugs like fentanyl to youth.

Sophie Szew, a first-year student at Stanford University, was present at Tuesday's committee meeting and was among the people testifying in support of this bill.

Szew shared her own experience as a 10-year-old first downloading Instagram at the insistence of friends during her birthday party. She said that shortly after, the platform bombarded her with content that she described as "pro-eating disorder."

“I am talking about content that outright told me what behaviors to use to starve myself," Szew said, "I was ten years old and for the next five years, I put my body through absolute hell in order to get to a place where I was about to die.”

She described the ways the videos she saw on Instagram during those years led her to develop an eating disorder that put her organs in jeopardy.

"We have seatbelts on cars and car manufacturers are not allowed to sell them without those seatbelts, so why are we letting social media companies put out products that outright harm children without having any safe rails in place?" Szew said.

From her Stanford dorm, Szew plans to follow this bill's progress in the legislature, hoping that lawmakers are listening to the experiences of young people like her.

"We are not outright trying to abolish Instagram, but we are trying to put up safe rails that need to be in place"

Among those testifying in opposition to this bill was Dylan Hoffman, who spoke on behalf of TechNet which represents technology CEOs and senior executives. Among TechNet's listed members is Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.

“We couldn’t agree more that these issues are incredibly important, our platforms have been working on mitigating the risks to many of these factors included in SB 287 for years," Hoffman said. However, Hoffman believes that this bill is unconstitutional.

"We believe that putting enforcement of content online in the hands of public prosecutors just serves to further politicize those decisions," Hoffman continued.

Dr. Shaun Fletcher, an assistant professor of public relations at San Jose State University pointed out the growing momentum for legislation like this at the state and national levels to regulate social media companies.

"Social media is an unregulated space,” he noted, pointing out that social media is not regulated in the ways that television and radio media are.

Fletcher noted that social media can have particular harm to youth who come from historically marginalized or disenfranchised groups.

"It is the same playbook that we saw from our tobacco industry that we continue to see, that it continues to prey on those same demographics," Fletcher said.

Based on how social media executives have behaved so far in the face of growing national scrutiny, Fletcher doesn't expect that social media companies will accept this California bill without a fight.

"It is a dangerous precedent and potentially a bridge to nowhere to expect that these organizations will police themselves," Fletcher said.

NBC Bay Area reached out to Instagram and several other major social media platforms for comment on this bill, but we have not received a response.

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