If Assembly Bill 2408 becomes law, it will hold accountable the largest social media giants that have played a leading role in the most acute and widespread youth mental health crisis experts have ever seen.
By Henry Stern
Henry Stern, a Democrat from Calabasas, represents California’s 27th Senate District.
Jim Steyer, Special to CalMatters
Jim Steyer is the CEO of Common Sense Media.
Under many reasonable laws, we as members of society have a common duty to be careful not to cause harm to others in our everyday affairs. Laws impose on us all — from the biggest manufacturers to every individual — a duty of “ordinary care.” In our system, we require and expect those who cause harm to be held accountable for the harm they cause.
Assembly Bill 2408, first-of-its-kind legislation, would hold accountable the largest social media giants who have played a leading role in the most acute and widespread youth mental health crisis experts have ever seen. The bill, authored by Assemblymembers Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) and Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), will clarify the legal duty of the largest social media companies — Meta (formerly Facebook), Instagram, TikTok and Snap — not to addict children by designing their products and features to be progressively habit-forming.
It allows public prosecutors — the state attorney general and district attorneys — to bring civil lawsuits against these companies whose design and algorithms are known to purposefully addict young people, causing neurological changes in young brains and often leading to serious anxiety, depression and other effects of addiction.
This bill is not entirely punitive. If social media companies actively monitor what they are doing to children to prevent addiction, identify problems, and then quickly stop using whatever features are addictive, they would not be financially liable for civil penalties.
This concept is in keeping with current laws that impose responsibility on all of us to not harm others — by, for example, not texting while driving, placing caution signs on slippery floors, putting tamper-free packaging on medicines, or prohibiting smoking in public places.
In recent state legislative hearings, there has been powerful and alarming testimony from frontline practicing psychiatrists and other mental health experts who regularly see children with severe, life-threatening addictions to social media. This kind of addiction, according to professionals, is akin to gambling or substance abuse. Their professional and clinical observations are reinforced by data leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. According to the company’s own research, between 5.8% and 8% of 14-year-olds are engaging in “problematic use” that the company defined in the same way mental health professionals define addiction. Indeed, Facebook said that some of its child users had an “addict’s narrative.”
To slow or reverse this troubling trend, we urgently need to make what is obviously immoral — making addicts of children — obviously illegal.
AB 2408 is a common-sense bill that has garnered bipartisan support from faith leaders, mental health professionals, child advocacy groups, civil rights leaders, educators and parents. If veteran watchers of state politics can name another bill supported by both a large teachers’ union and the chair of the Orange County Republican Party, then we want to know about it.
The good news? The full California Assembly passed the bill with 51 votes — 10 more than needed. Democrats, Republicans and an Independent have heard the voices of anguished parents and children and voted for the bill. And AB 2408 recently passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with all Democrats except one — state Sen. Robert Hertzberg — voting aye.
Soon, the full Senate and Gov. Gavin Newsom will determine the fate of this groundbreaking legislation. We are confident that they will see the same promise that AB 2408 holds to protect kids from online harm and reject the sky-will-fall arguments of social media companies whose only interest is in protecting a bottom line fueled by keeping kids addicted to their platforms.
We can think of no more solemn duty of the government than to protect children. We are in the middle of a youth mental health emergency. Our children need a legislative equivalent of an ambulance. Hopefully, this legislation is on the way.