NJ lawmakers propose to penalize social media companies for children’s online addiction

For teenagers like Nidhi Das, social media became a cherished lifeline for friends in the early days of the pandemic.

But when normal life resumed, Das didn’t like how attached she felt to it. Social media became her go-to antidote to boredom, and even the misinformation that infects many platforms kept her swiping.

“The algorithm curates what you like. And people would invent little controversies, which might encourage you, like, “Oh, let me investigate.” Even if it’s not true, I still want to know, ‘Oh, where did that come from?'” said Das, 17, a Lawrenceville high school senior. “The fascinating thing is that there’s always something endless, so keep scrolling.”

Because of this, several New Jersey lawmakers recently introduced legislation to crack down on social media platforms that use addictive features that trick underage users into developing social media addiction. Violators would face fines of up to $250,000 unless they remove the addictive features from their products. The bill only applies to companies that had gross sales of more than $100 million in the previous year and to video game platforms.

Rep. Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) said Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s congressional testimony inspired him to introduce the law in January, as well as several other bills aimed at protecting children from social media. Haughen testified that Facebook algorithms can intentionally suckle in children and can be particularly toxic to teenage girls.

“Facebook is really commodifying the human mind,” Conaway said. “Unfortunately, far too many people in the business of selling things are willing to engage in behaviors and practices that do a lot of harm if they make a lot of money from it. And this is where the government needs to step in and say that we have a responsibility to protect the public.”

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Rep. Herb Conaway Jr. chairs the convention’s health committee. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Just as smoking, drug use and not using seatbelts prompted lawmakers to pass legislation, social media addiction is a public health threat that requires legislative action, he added.

“These social media platforms are in a regulatory, legal loophole,” Conaway said.

Conaway introduced a related bill in January that would create a commission to investigate the impact of school smartphone and social media use on youth, and another bill in December that would protect the privacy of underage social media users should.

The latter bill also aims to prevent addiction by mandating a “privacy impact assessment” that would require social media companies to disclose whether they use features — such as auto-playing videos, rewards for time spent, and notifications , which serve to keep users online longer.

Several other Assembly Democrats have signed on as major sponsors of the bills, including Essex County’s Shanique Speight, Mercer County’s Dan Benson and Burlington County’s Carol Murphy.

A national struggle

Conaway and his colleagues are far from the first lawmakers to try to break social media’s stranglehold on youth nationally. This type of legislation is popping up in state buildings across the country.

The Maryland legislature introduced a bill earlier this month that would limit data collection and profiling of children, mandate high privacy settings by default, and limit geolocation. Last year, Minnesota lawmakers considered legislation that would have banned platforms from using recommendation algorithms for underage users, but failed to pass it. And a bill in California would have allowed parents to sue social media companies for hooking their children, but it also failed.

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Social media addiction has also prompted federal politics to act.

In Congress, a Kids Online Safety Act would have increased parental controls over screen time, autoplay and privacy, and required social media companies to disclose how they use algorithms and targeted advertising with their underage users. This bill, introduced last year, also failed. Even the US Supreme Court is expected to step in, which has two cases scheduled this week aimed at holding Google and Twitter liable for what their algorithms promote or suggest.

Industry has lobbied against the bills wherever they appear.

But Conaway is not intimidated. Anyone skeptical about the need for legal intervention should consider the damaging effects of social media on teens and their role in bullying, Conaway said, citing the recent suicide of an Ocean County high school student whose classmates assaulted her and subsequent videos published on social media.

“This isn’t our first rodeo,” Conaway said. “We must try to move forward, also in the face of resistance that will come from outside the legislature, but I think also from within the legislature. I hope some of my colleagues recognize the danger as I do, and we can get this legislation on the governor’s desk.”

Some are not waiting for lawmakers to act.

In Morris County, the Chathams’ school district last week filed a federal lawsuit against Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Google and YouTube, saying the platforms had fueled students’ addictions and mental health issues through “manipulative” business practices.

County officials want a judge to declare social media a public nuisance and are seeking unspecified damages to help meet rising costs, including hiring more counselors to help students and disciplinary staff deal with online harassment, threats and bullying .

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“These severe mental health consequences have placed a heavy burden on society and schools in particular. It cannot be overstated that social media has drastically transformed the high and middle school experience of students across the country,” the lawsuit alleges.

As for that, she ended up pulling the plug herself: her only indulgence is just the occasional scrolling through TikTok.

“I used to have all social media like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter — everything,” she said. “But I realized there wasn’t a lot of substance. It was all so repetitive.”