Attorney General James Champions Legislation to Protect Kids From Addictive Social Media Feeds in National USA Today Op-Ed

Gannett published an op-ed by New York Attorney General Letitia James and California Attorney General Rob Bonta in its flagship USA Today newspaper about their work to advance legislation to protect children’s mental health by reining in addictive social media feeds. 

Text of the op-ed is available below and can be viewed online

As state attorneys general, we have two primary duties: defending our states’ laws and interests, and protecting the rights and wellbeing of the people we were elected to serve. When Americans across the country faced urgent, and powerful threats to their health, safety, and prosperity, attorneys general across the nation have stood together to take them on:

  • In the 1990s, state attorneys general stood up to big tobacco after years of false advertising and illegally marketing to children. 
  • During the housing crisis we took on the big banks that recklessly led the country into a massive economic recession. 
  • More recently we have worked together to hold big pharma accountable for the opioid crisis that has led to addiction and tragic overdose deaths across the country.

Now, as a mental health crisis exacerbated by social media giants seeking to addict and commodify the attention of children grows worse and worse each year, it’s time to take collective action again. 

Our teens' addictive social feeds heighten risks

Recent research demonstrates the devastating mental health effects caused by social media use, including increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and self-harm. Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face twice the risk of poor mental health outcomes. Addictive feeds — designed to harness personal data to curate users’ content that will keep them on the platform for as long as possible — have dramatically heightened the risk to young users’ wellbeing and made our children addicted to these social media outlets.  

In the first seven years after addictive feeds were introduced, suicide rates for 10-to-14-year-old girls doubled and hospitalizations for suicidal ideation and attempts increased nearly two-fold for all adolescents. Instead of responding to the problem, social media empires have escalated efforts to keep and capture user engagement and the consequences have been catastrophic.  

Beyond the direct toll of social media addiction, the collection of children’s data by these giant companies puts our kids at grave risk, leaving them vulnerable to having their location and other personal data tracked, shared and sold online. As a consequence, that data is at greater risk of falling into the wrong hands, including human traffickers, identity thieves and others who might prey on young people. 

We will not stand by and watch an arms race among social media mega-corporations over who can best profit from our children’s pain and addiction. That is why we are using every tool at our disposal to fight back against these pernicious practices: from the courthouse to the statehouse.  

Why we are championing new legislation to protect our kids

Last October, we spearheaded litigation with 42 fellow state attorneys general against Meta — which owns Facebook, Instagram, and Threads — alleging that the company knowingly designed and deployed harmful features on its social media platforms that purposefully addict children and teens.  

However, Meta is not the only company pushing algorithmic addiction on vulnerable young people. TikTok, Youtube, X (formerly Twitter) and others are explicitly engineered to capture unhealthy levels of engagement. A broader and more permanent solution is needed. That is why we are also championing legislation in our respective states to crack down on addictive feeds and safeguard against the collection and sale of children’s personal information. While these bills will be subject to deafening levels of fearmongering by some of the richest and most powerful companies in the world, in reality they are carefully designed, commonsense measures crafted to limit the harms of social media on children while still maintaining the benefits.  

At their hearts, the addictive feed bills do a few basic, logical things including requiring that chronological feeds of posts from users that children actually follow be the default setting, which is how social media operated before addictive feeds were surreptitiously introduced. Additionally, our legislation will allow parents to limit the total number of hours their children can access social media, opt out of middle-of-the-night access, and prohibit companies from sending kids dead-of-night notifications.  

The data protection bills simply protect more young people by prohibiting all online sites from collecting, using, sharing, or selling personal data of anyone under the age of 18, unless they receive informed consent or unless doing so is strictly necessary for the website’s core purpose. 

And this is what the legislation will not do

We would also like to be clear about what the bills will not do. They will not require minors to obtain parental consent or verify their age in order to create social media accounts. They will not give parents new or additional legal authority to view or access minor’s accounts. They will not limit minors’ ability to connect with friends, explore topics of interest, or receive general content recommendations. These activities will remain as they are now.  

And despite a common industry talking point, these bills will not restrict speech. These bills don’t regulate what is said; they create default limits on platform features and designs to better protect young minds. The type of thoughtful limitation in these bills has been found Constitutional time and again, particularly when the government’s interest is as profound as protecting the health and safety of our children.  

Curbing the excesses of some of the world’s most powerful and influential companies will not be easy. But the formative mental health of a generation is at stake, and we cannot afford to stand idly by and not respond. We’ve stepped up before as attorneys general to address a rising threat to the health and safety of our constituents. With the support and courage of our colleagues in our states’ legislatures, we know that we will succeed and that children will finally be protected against the most insidious harms of social media.