New York may have passed new laws making social media less addictive for kids, but real change is still a ways off


Close to four in 10 of the local high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing their usual activities, and those who considered suicide reached 16%, according to city data from 2021. — Image by freepik

The New York State Legislature has joined the ranks of lawmakers nationwide declaring the need to address the negative influence of social media on children. But whether the legislation can deliver on its goal to protect young people’s mental health will depend on its implementation and ability to survive potential legal challenges.

In the session’s final days, the legislature overwhelmingly passed a package to restrict “addictive” feeds on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, expected to be signed by Gov. Hochul into law.

Proponents say algorithms designed to keep users scrolling make social media addictive and cost children some much needed sleep. One of the bills would require parental consent to access the algorithms that glue kids to their phones – or otherwise default to a chronological feed – and pause notifications after midnight.

The companion bill adds safeguards around the collection and selling of children’s personal data without parental consent. Both were sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblywoman Nily Rozic (D-Queens).

But the bills have drawn strong opposition from industry groups and the companies, who launched an intense lobbying campaign against the effort. The backlash is not new: Several states have already passed laws against harmful social media content that have gotten entangled in the court system.

Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the tech policy coalition Chamber of Progress, described recent changes to the legislation since it was first introduced in New York as a “fresh coat of paint on a rotten bill.” The group has opposed the measures, claiming they could hinder internal efforts to make the platforms more appropriate for kids.

“Algorithms actually make online platforms better for teens, by boosting healthy content over hate, harm, and misinformation,” Kovacevich said. “This bill’s unconstitutional limits are going to have a hard time surviving a court challenge.”

New York lawmakers believe their legislation is narrowly drafted to not run afoul of free speech protections and other thorny issues.

“We looked very carefully at the entire legal landscape across the country,” said Gounardes. “We believe that we have crafted this in a way that avoids all the obstacles that other bills fell subject to. This bill does not infringe upon content in any way.”

During negotiations, lawmakers dropped provisions in the bill that restricted night hours on the platforms and gave parents the private right to sue companies that break the law. As part of the changes, the New York attorney general was directed to come up with rules for enforcing the law.

Among the rules Attorney General Letitia James, a proponent of the bill who helped craft it, will have to figure out how social media platforms can verify age and parental consent. That could range from asking users to fill out a form to requiring government identification, potentially creating new data privacy risks, the tech companies warn.

Officials have promised a vigorous process: “There will be more control than just giving a birthday,” the governor said at the press conference. But the bill appeared to punt key questions about implementation to James until after the law passed and will not go into effect until rules are in place.

Still, many lawmakers and experts in young people’s social media use believe the legislation is a good start, and the protections for children too important not to address.

“We’re sticking with this fight,” Hochul said at a press conference last week. “We’re not giving up. So now, it’s time to come to table work with us. You’ll be far better off if you work with us ... it’s going to happen if you want to be part of this or not.”

Ioana Literat, a professor of youth online participation at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said governments have a crucial role in ensuring platforms are safe for young people, but have traditionally been “lax and hands-off to a fault.”

“The proposed bills are on the right track, as they aim to address legitimate concerns regarding the safety and privacy of children online,” said Literat. But she warned against an over-reliance on parental consent that could backfire on teens who use the Internet to learn about and express their identity.

Close to four in 10 of the local high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing their usual activities, and those who considered suicide reached 16%, according to city data from 2021.

The reforms may go beyond the social media bills. To continue to go after child online safety, Hochul has also eyed legislation banning smartphones in New York schools in the upcoming legislative session. Children would still have access to flip-phones with text messaging, the governor told The Guardian.

Nicholas Rosario, a senior at Discovery High School in the Bronx, where students have to put their cellphones in bags during the school day, said restrictions on social media and their devices are unlikely to help him and his friends. His school currently has a counselor and a social worker, but he’s been told Discovery will lose a staffer next year.

“My school doesn’t even have phones involved, and it still has these mental health crises happening,” said Rosario. “The lack of counselors is the main factor ... that’s hurting students.” – New York Daily News/Tribune News Service

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