In some ways, social media apps are like casinos.
That’s according to Ed Howard, senior attorney at the University of San Diego Law School’s Children’s Advocacy Institute. Howard is working with California lawmakers on a new bill that would leave social media giants like Meta, TikTok and Snap open to lawsuits from parents who think their kids are addicted to their online apps.
Casinos, as Howard claims, are notoriously designed to make you lose your sense of time, with no clocks or windows on the walls to distract you. Social media apps do something similar, he claims, with videos that start automatically and streams of content that can scroll endlessly – features that are deliberately designed to keep us glued to our phones.
But unlike gambling, there are few barriers that protect children from the addictive nature of social media. Howard is among those seeking to change that through the state’s proposed bill.
“As [social media companies] to think ambitiously and creatively implement policies and practices to exploit children, we want to motivate them to use the same ambition and ingenuity to be kind to them,” Howard told dot.LA.
In particular, the bill does not attempt to regulate or prohibit specific features; instead, it imposes a general legal obligation on social media companies not to make children dependent on their platforms. Specifically, proponents of the bill take issue with product features that are central to the social media business model: grabbing users’ attention to show them ads.
Likes, comments and push notifications that seek to quantify popularity are among the design patterns that can make children addicted, child advocates say. Even features as seemingly innocuous as marking messages “read” or “unread” can put social pressure on children to respond immediately, said Marvin Deon, vice president of California policy at Common Sense Media. , a children’s advocacy group. Then there are video autoplays and so-called “bottomless scrolls,” which can turn a quick phone check into a 20-minute session on TikTok.
And these are only those that are known to the public. With their vast troves of consumer data, social media giants can understand other ways their apps can be more or less addictive. This lack of knowledge is one of the likely reasons the California bill does not attempt to prescribe a specific solution. Instead, the bill would allow companies to escape civil penalties if they conducted their own audits and fixed the issues on their own.
In response to this new regulatory push, Culver City-based TikTok noted that its social media platform is rolling out protective features that block late-night push notifications for young users and allow parents to manage time to screen of their children. Santa Monica-based Snap is also reportedly working on adding parental controls. Both companies declined requests for comment on Monday.
It’s too early to tell where the bill goes from here. The state’s social media giants are unlikely to give up their popular features easily and are expected to lobby against the proposal. But momentum has grown on that front since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified last fall that the company knows its apps harm the mental health of children. There are several pending bills in California alone that seek to put in place safeguards for children’s online lives, as well as an active investigation by a coalition of state attorneys general into whether TikTok harm to children. And that doesn’t include all the action in Washington DC, where lawmakers may one day agree on how to regulate big tech.
Amid this growing regulatory scrutiny, it remains to be seen whether, in the case of social media, the house still wins. — Christian Hetric
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