It may not seem this way on the surface, but there’s a growing awareness that the most important bill California legislators will consider this year is not about housing or homelessness or abortion or wildfires or taxes.
Rather, it’s one that might force gigantic electronic firms to lay off our teenage kids and stop trying to addict them for profit.
If most adults were not yet aware of the potential mind-changing effects of kids looking at screens for hours, a year or more of watching schoolchildren struggle to learn while working on computers programmed to help them, not exploit them, probably provided some understanding.
But even as computer programs and sessions devoted to learning had difficulty holding kids’ attention, there was no reduction in youthful addiction to more glitzy screen programs like TikTok and Instagram, designed not to help them learn, but rather to manipulate them in myriad other ways.
In his landmark 2015 book, “The Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age,” the Harvard-trained, Walnut Creek-based Ph.D. psychologist Richard Freed asserted that “We need to stop accepting on faith the gadget-dominated life thrust upon our kids. … The push to give our kids so many playtime devices is based on inaccurate notions.”
Widespread emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) rather than subjects like history or English composition contributes to parental acceptance of myriad screens in their children’s lives.
That has made social media a vital part of many — maybe most — childhoods.
But big technology companies led by Facebook, owner of Instagram, use algorithms to mine information about users, selling that information to advertisers who then send out personalized content and ads.
Enter the current Assembly Bill 2408, sponsored by Assembly members Jordan Cunningham, a San Luis Obispo Republican, and Democrat Buffy Wicks of Oakland.
The bill’s preamble cites internal Facebook research showing the company is aware that “severe harm is happening to children,” who are decreasingly connected to family and school the more addicted they become to Instagram and similar media.
This is done via targeted videos and notifications that pop up 24 hours a day and never-ending scrolling designed to keep users on a particular site.
The preamble adds that girls have a higher prevalence of screen addiction than boys and that girls admitting to excessive social media use are 2-3 times more likely than boys to be depressed, a condition that can lead to suicide.
And it says an internal Facebook message board reported that 66% of teen girls on Instagram experience “negative social comparison,” often leading to low self-esteem, which can precede depression.
The bill’s solution is to prohibit social media platforms with parent companies whose annual revenues exceed $100 million from addicting any child user via use or sale of personal data.
It would allow parents and guardians to sue for up to $25,000 per violation, with no ceiling on total liability.
Lawmakers are usually loath to create new grounds for lawsuits aimed at California companies, but this bill passed the Assembly on a 51-0 vote, with no explanation why that house’s other 29 members did not vote.
Psychologist Freed, who testified in favor of the bill in a committee hearing, said it could reduce what he called “an epidemic of depression and suicidality in girls.”
That’s because, as the bill preamble notes, “Numerous studies show that reducing social media use (has great) mental health benefits.”
The state Senate will now get its shot at making a contribution to mental health in California by following the Assembly and approving the bill, with Gov. Gavin Newsom — parent of four preteen children -— likely to sign it without hesitation.
And if California passes this, expect other states to follow, as they often have on unrelated measures like the Proposition 13 property tax cuts and this state’s smog rules.
Email Thomas Elias at [email protected].