from the think-this-through-a-bit dept
Ridiculous, unhinged, anti-internet legislation is a bipartisan affair. The latest such examples is California’s new (awkwardly named) Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act. As you can likely tell from the name, this is yet another moral panic “think of the children!” bill. It argues that social media is addictive and that we need to “hold companies responsible” for that so-called addiction. It kicks off by quoting some research — but cherry picking which research and taking some of the findings out of context — to insist that social media is unquestionably bad for kids.
The reality is that this is very much in dispute. What does seem clear is for some kids, social media impacts them negatively, while for some kids, it impacts them positively. Indeed, a huge comprehensive study recently found that there was no evidence to support the idea that social media made kids unhappy. In fact, a pretty thorough “study of studies” found that the claim that social media leads to depression and anxiety is lacking any evidentiary support.
That’s not to say that some kids get sucked in to social media disputes or otherwise get too wrapped up in social media, but the idea that there’s some massive systemic problem that is wiping out kids left and right and needs legislation right now is not actually supported by the data.
It’s kind of like… almost anything that involves kids. Young adult fiction. School dances. The difficulties of being a teenager. All of those things can lead to depression and anxiety. It’s called being a teenager. But all of those things — including social media — can also lead to more and better social connections for many kids as well. Indeed, while the bill itself cites some of the data released by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, it’s important to remember that Haugen and the WSJ claimed that internal research on Instagram showed that Facebook “knew” that Instagram made teens feel bad about themselves… but they totally misrepresented the actual study which (1) showed that it was a very small sample size, and (2) that with US kids a much larger percentage said that Instagram made them feel better about themselves:
So, why, again, is this bill starting off with the premise that it’s unquestionable that social media is somehow all bad for kids?
If the bill were to conduct a more thorough study on this issue, that might be useful! If the bill were to explore suggestions for how to help the (apparently very small) percentage of teens who feel bad because of social media, that might be good.
But that’s not what this bill does. It assumes — falsely and against all evidence (even the evidence the bill itself cites) — that social media is inherently addictive and bad for kids.
Anyway, the bill says that social media sites will have “a duty not to addict child users.” I mean, what the fuck does that even mean? My kids play Wordle every day. Does the NY Times have a duty to get my kid to stop playing Wordle? The definition of “addiction” in the bill is incredibly, ridiculously, unworkably broad:
“Addiction” means use of one or more social media platforms that does both of the following:
(A)Indicates preoccupation or obsession with, or withdrawal or difficulty to cease or reduce use of, a social media platform despite the user’s desire to cease or reduce that use.
(B) Causes or contributes to physical, mental, emotional, developmental, or material harms to the user.
This is going to lead to so many frivolous lawsuits when parents of teenagers get upset that their kids don’t want to talk to them any more, insisting that it must be social media’s fault. “My kid likes watching TikTok videos more than talking to her uncool parents, so let’s sue!”
And, yes, the bill’s enforcement mechanism is that the parents of children can sue the website seeking $25,000 per violation, as well as “actual damages” (which are unlikely to be findable in the vast majority of cases), and “punitive damages.” Oh, and also get their legal fees paid for by the company.
Think of just how much frivolous litigation this is going to bring. You’ve basically handed every parent in California a high-likelihood payout lottery ticket to try to force every major social media company to hand over thousands of dollars.
So, among other things, it seems pretty likely that much of this bill, if not all of it, would be preempted by Section 230, but the authors of the bill — Republican Jordan Cunningham and Democrat Buffy Wicks — put in a random line to pretend otherwise, saying that “this section shall not be construed to impose liability for a social media platform for content that is generated by a users of the service…”
Which, of course, is nonsensical. If there’s anything that “addicts” people to social media, it’s the content which is provided by users of the service.
The whole thing is a morally repugnant attempt at a moral panic “for the children” that shows absolutely no recognition that sometimes teenagers are unhappy just because, and we don’t need to blame it on anything other than them being a teen. Forcing social media companies to shell out money isn’t going to make kids happy. Though, I guess it will make some parents happy.
Please, California, don’t keep electing politicians who fall for moral panics.