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California Shows What it Means to Protect Children on Social Media

Technology Policy Brief #67 | By: Steve Piazza | September 20, 2022

Header photo taken from: Tony Avelar / Associated Press

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Proponents of California bill say new rules should reduce risks for minors while promoting children’s autonomy and well-being online.

Photo taken from: Getty Images

Policy Summary

In late August, 2022 the California State Legislature passed AB-2273, The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act. Built upon existing California laws. AB-2273 is aimed at protecting anyone under 18 from possible harmful effects of social media.

The nearly unanimous agreement is presently on Governor Newsom’s desk awaiting his signature.

If enacted, beginning July 1, 2024 businesses providing platforms that children are likely to access must safeguard their privacy through carefully configured default settings. Such companies are also prohibited from misusing child personal information.

Businesses will also be required to provide a Data Protection Impact Assessment before any new platforms and/or features are introduced. The assessment must determine if the platform poses any potential harm via content or contacts and whether their algorithms and advertisements may target children. Non-compliant companies face fines of $2500 for negligence and $7500 if the violation is deemed intentional

Policy Analysis

The ongoing battle for industry self governance as opposed to government regulation is once again intensifying, this time in the name of security and privacy for children while online.

AB-2273 is a response to a lack of willingness on the part of the social networking industry to put substantive safeguards for young people in place. Recent public outcries against disclosures that Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms are doing considerable harm to the self-esteem of young people have motivated legislators to take action.

The catalyst just may have been Frances Haugen, a former Facebook Project Manager, who shared thousands of pages of internal documents providing evidence that Facebook (now Meta) was aware of the negative effects its platform has on its users, including children, while sacrificing personal well being for corporate growth. California legislators and AB-2273 co-authors, Betty Wicks (D)  and Jordan Cunningham (R), cite those leaks as influential in the development of  the legislation.

Not surprising, social media companies and their supporters have pushed back on such accusations in an attempt to downplay any lack of concern. Defending Meta, Mark Zuckerburg tweeted that there is no need for criticism because the company already cares. “Many of the claims don’t make any sense. If we wanted to ignore research, why would we create an industry-leading research program to understand these important issues in the first place?” A red herring to be sure.

And RampRate CSO Alex Veyste asks in Fortune  If a business saw an existential crisis looming, would it do absolutely nothing about it?” His answer is “of course not,” but just like anything else, universal attempts at reasoning don’t hold up. One just has to refer to similar past behavior by the the alcohol, cigarette, gasoline, and palm oil industries to see how absolute their efforts were.

Chart taken from: Pew Research Center

(click or tap to enlargen)

Requiring social media companies to modify their safety features might be viewed by some as not going far enough, but it is way overdue. 

Since the beginning of the social media boom 20 years ago, there has been plenty of evidence that technology use by youth has both good and bad effects, but belief in the harmful consequences have become more widespread, especially on platforms that are not designed specifically for such young users.

Recent studies on children around the world have shown the correlation between increased social media usage and emotional and psychological effects.

Surveys by Pew Research and leading universities indicate the widespread belief that social media have severe consequences in the development of adolescents. Media outlet narratives regularly cite polls that indicate potential negative effects.

And the call for action itself is supported. According to a national poll conducted by Common Sense Media in 2018, over 90% of parents would like more transparency when it comes to the collection of use of personal information.

AB 2273 is not the first of its kind and is loosely based on recent legislation out of Great Britain. But it does have the most bite. 

And it won’t be the last, as another California bill, The Social Media Platform Duty Children Act,  would allow parents to actually sue companies for prastices harmful to children.  Besides, as usual with laws out of California, this activity will be an impetus for other states and the federal government to take more action.

The battles between Silicon Valley and the government will continue, but hopefully will be short lived so that involved parents and educators who know they have some responsibility in children’s online experiences will not have to feel the futility of outside forces working against them.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

In addition to providing resources for schools and parents, Common Sense Media studies the effects of the digital world on children:  https://www.commonsensemedia.org/press-releases/common-sense-and-surveymonkey-poll-finds-privacy-matters-for-parents-and-teens-on-social-media

This link connects to a tool kit for parents, students and educators: https://www.humanetech.com/families-educators

For a good overview of the issue and what can be done above and beyond what the government and industry can do, click the following:  https://edsource.org/2022/citing-the-impact-on-children-officials-ramp-up-efforts-to-regulate-social-media/668911

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