N.J. legislators propose punishing social media companies for kids’ online addiction

Government has ‘a responsibility to protect the public,’ bill’s sponsor says

By: - February 22, 2023 6:58 am

Several lawmakers have introduced legislation intended to stop social media companies from using habit-forming features that lead to social media addiction among underage users. (Amalie Hindash for New Jersey Monitor)

For teenagers like Nidhi Das, social media became a cherished lifeline to friends during the pandemic’s early days.

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

“The algorithm, it curates to what you like. And people would make up little controversies, so that might encourage you, like ‘oh, let me look into that.’ Even if it’s not true, I still want to know like: ‘Oh, where did that stem from?’” said Das, 17, a high school senior from Lawrenceville. “The addicting thing is that there’s always something endlessly there, so you keep scrolling.”

That’s why several New Jersey lawmakers recently introduced legislation to crack down on social media platforms that use habit-forming features that entice underage users to develop social media addictions. Violators would face up to $250,000 in fines unless they remove the addictive features from their products. The bill applies only to companies that earned more than $100 million in gross revenue the preceding year and video game platforms.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) said the congressional testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen inspired him to introduce the bill in January, as well as several other bills intended to protect children from social media. Haughen testified that Facebook algorithms deliberately suck children in and can be especially toxic to teen girls.

“Facebook really is making a commodity out of the human mind,” Conaway said. “Unfortunately, far too many people in the business of selling things are perfectly willing to engage in behavior and practices that cause a lot of harm if it means they’re going to make a lot of money. And that’s where government has to step in and say that we have a responsibility to protect the public.”

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

Just as smoking, substance use, and a failure to use seatbelts drove lawmakers to pass laws, social media addiction is a public health threat that requires legislative action, he added.

“These social media platforms sit in a regulatory, statutory void,” Conaway said.

Conaway introduced a related bill in January that would establish a commission to study the effects on adolescents of smartphone and social media usage in school and another bill in December intended to protect the privacy of underage social media users.

The latter bill also aims to prevent addiction by requiring a “data protection impact assessment” in which social media companies would have to reveal if they use features — like auto-play videos, rewards for time spent, and notifications — intended to keep users online longer.

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

A national fight

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

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

Social media addiction has driven federal policymakers to act too.

In Congress, a Kids Online Safety Act would have increased parental controls of screen time, auto-play, and privacy, and it would have required social media companies to reveal how they use algorithms and targeted advertising with their underage users. That bill, introduced last year, also failed. Even the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in, with two cases on their schedule this week that seek to hold Google and Twitter liable for what their algorithms promote or suggest.

The industry has lobbied against the bills wherever they arise.

But Conaway isn’t cowed. Anyone skeptical of the need for legislative intervention should consider social media’s damaging impact on adolescents and its role in bullying, Conaway said, citing the recent suicide of an Ocean County high schooler whose classmates attacked her and posted videos on social media afterward.

“This is not our first rodeo,” Conaway said. “We have to try to forge ahead, even in the face of opposition that’s going to come from outside the Legislature, but I imagine also within the Legislature. I’m hoping that a number of my colleagues will recognize the danger as I do, and we can get this legislation moving on to the governor’s desk.”

Some aren’t waiting for lawmakers to act.

In Morris County, the School District of the Chathams filed a federal lawsuit against Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Google, and YouTube last week, saying the platforms fueled students’ addiction and mental health struggles through “manipulative” business practices.

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

“These severe mental health consequences have placed severe burdens on society and, in particular, schools. It cannot be stated strongly enough that social media has drastically changed the high school and middle school experience of students across the nation,” the lawsuit alleges.

As for Das, she eventually pulled the plug herself: her only lingering indulgence is just an occasional scroll through TikTok.

“I used to have all the social media, like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter — all of it,” she said. “But I realized that there was not a lot of substance to it. It was all so repetitive.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.