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California ban on ‘addictive’ social media fails

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The bill would have punished features that hooked children

A person holding a phone using Instagram. Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

A proposal to let parents sue over addictive social media features failed in the California legislature this week. The bill, AB 2408, failed to pass out of committee for a full state Senate vote. It at least temporarily ends a controversial push to increase liability for social media in the state — an increasingly common practice among legislators.

AB 2408, or the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, was one of numerous state-level social media proposals. It would have authorized civil penalties against social networks whose designs caused a “child user ... to become addicted to the platform,” either by design or in a way the operators should have known was harmful. It would not have applied to social networks that generate less than $100 million annually or are primarily intended for video games.

The bill dovetails with a larger push to either limit minors’ exposure to social media or heighten the risks for platforms that allow them. It follows internal research indicating that sites like Instagram can have a negative effect on teens’ mental health, as well as changes made by the platforms themselves. “The bill’s death means a handful of social media companies will be able to continue their experiment on millions of California kids, causing generational harm,” said bill author Jordan Cunningham of the proposal’s demise. At a national level, President Joe Biden has called for new child safety protections online, and last year federal lawmakers proposed raising the age of a rule that limits collecting data from minors online.

But critics of AB 2408 — including internet policy experts like legal writer Eric Goldman — argued that the rule would have pushed services toward privacy-threatening age verification and said it obscured the complex factors behind compulsive social media use. “It hurts the kids by depriving them of valuable social outlets and educational resources; it hurts adults by requiring age (and likely identity) verification to sort the kids from adults; and the age/identity verification hurts both kids and adults by exposing them to greater privacy and security risks,” wrote Goldman in an August post on the bill.

Had the bill passed, it might have still faced a legal battle thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — but that hasn’t stopped other state legislatures. Texas and Florida have both passed rules regulating social media to prevent social networks from banning conservative users. So far, both laws remain on hold pending a showdown in court.