Teen girl with computer
A teen girl with a laptop computer. Photo via Pixabay

Have you scrolled through your social media feed lately? Depending on your age, interests, and viewing history, your feed will be populated with plenty of engaging content — vacation photos, birthday celebrations, hilarious videos, sports highlights, and probably all sorts of content that you may not be subscribed to but has been curated to capture your attention.

These are incredibly powerful tools that can be used to disseminate critically important information in real-time to a wide audience. As anyone charged with coordinating wildfire evacuations will tell you, the information shared on social media likely helped save lives.

And if this piece was written by the social media companies, this would be the end of the story. Because they would not tell you that their products have also been found to encourage teenage eating disorders and mental health issues.

You wouldn’t get any details about algorithms intentionally designed to take even young users deep into “harmful” rabbit holes. And they wouldn’t so much as acknowledge the role their products have played in pushing fragile, impressionable young minds to thoughts of suicide and depression.

The ubiquity of the reach of these social media companies is matched only by the strength of the hold they have on their users. On a daily basis, 22 million teens log onto Instagram, another 5 million log onto Facebook. Social media usage has grown faster in the two years since the start of the pandemic than it has in the four years prior to COVID-19.

We are at the point where millions of American children are now addicted to social media. If the risk was only wasted time and learning loss that would still be a problem but it goes further with long-term repercussions that include feelings of isolation, altered socialization patterns, increased suicidal ideations, and other mental health challenges, particularly for young girls.

Fourteen year-old Molly Rose took her own life after getting sucked into a downward spiral of depressive content on Instagram. Behind every data point there is a story like Molly’s.

Parents have been playing their role but the competing demands of parenthood and work make it impossible to keep our children safe if the social media companies, who know their algorithms are causing harm, don’t assume their share of the responsibility for safe content. And with $100 billion in annual revenue, Facebook and other social media platforms certainly have the resources to act.

We have to be willing to take a stand to protect our children. This isn’t a partisan issue. It is a parent issue. And nothing will change to better protect our kids until our policies change.

That is why we are proud to support Assembly Bill 2408, The Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, from Assemblymembers Jordan Cunningham and Buffy Wicks, which would stem the tide on addiction to social media platforms. It is so rare to see bipartisan legislation to tackle our most vexing issues, and that is why we are joining forces to support this legislation.

AB 2408 would prohibit a social media platform from using a design, feature, or affordance that the platform knew, or by the exercise of reasonable care should have known, causes a child user to become addicted to the platform. Additionally, the act would authorize the California Attorney General or a district attorney, county counsel, or city attorney to bring an action to recover or obtain certain relief, including a civil penalty of up to $250,000 for a knowing and willful violation.

The University of San Diego’s Children’s Advocacy Institute is the sponsor of this bill. The institute has long played a critical role in advancing child safety, including protecting children from abuse and neglect. The Institute is now waging a battle for children’s  mental health. They have increased awareness of the dangers of social media, and we are proud that our local institution is taking on such an important topic.

The use of social media has substantially increased over the years among adults, but usage among children has also become more prevalent along with concerns over the connection between social media usage and mental health. According to the 2017 Children’s Mental Health Report by the Child Mind Institute, overuse of social media has been linked to an increase in mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Facebook’s own internal research found that one in three girls developed negative body image issues as a result of Instagram. In an attempt to address concerning mental health data, AB 2408 seeks to hold social media platforms accountable when they knowingly addict children to their platforms.

These companies know exactly what they are doing. In September 2021, The Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files,” which show that Facebook knows it harms children. The algorithms are designed to be addictive, driving ad revenues, and making our children sick. 

Facebook alone is worth $500 billion, based largely on the fact that teens can spend hours on these platforms. The profits are stunning, but the cost is our youth mental health. And, the companies know that their algorithms impact girls disproportionately and they exploit that research to drive profits.

We are taking steps as the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to tackle youth mental health. But, we all know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure. If these companies can be compelled to change their profit model to be less damaging to children, then this is beneficial.

It is time we put a stop to this exploitation of our children — our youth are not here to drive profits for social media companies. We urge the legislature’s support for AB 2408.

Nathan Fletcher is chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and Joel Anderson is supervisor representing District 2.