Girl checking smartphone
Girl checking social media on her smartphone. Photo via Pixabay

Experts now agree that rampant social media use among children is a huge reason we are in an utterly unprecedented child mental health crisis. The daily practice of mental health professionals repeatedly confirms it. Every parent knows it. 

Indeed, social media giants themselves know it. Leaked internal research conducted by Instagram itself concluded: “6 percent of American [teens] trace their desire to kill themselves to Instagram…we make body image worse for 1 in 3 girls…an addict’s narrative.”  These are phrases used by Instagram’s own researchers to describe the experience of some child users trying to resist the platform.

Opinion logo

Want a horrifying example? One hundred and forty six percent is the pre-COVID increase in the number of our young teens who have died by their own hand using a firearm. Child and teen suicides overall are at never-before-seen levels, especially among girls.

Please, don’t let these be just statistics. Please, be brave enough to dwell or, if you are as we are, people of faith, pray on these numbers by imagining what childhood should be: a time of laughter, wonder, discovery.

Now, in terrible contrast, please be brave enough to imagine the alone-in-their room, secreted anguish of a mere child — capable of so much joy — as they consider the dark and irrevocable decision to end their own young lives with a gun.

Nobody seriously contends social media platforms will protect children on their own. They haven’t. They won’t. The core business models of social media giants is to keep as many eyeballs online for as long as possible no matter what.

The continued pressure for increasing stock prices is more important to Big Tech than the harm caused by their products. The ability to lawfully addict children to your product is, after all, very lucrative. Just ask the tobacco companies. And ever-smarter AI will help the platforms do more and more damage.

Social media platforms are not in the child-protection business. But, our elected officials are. Enter Senate Bill 287 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, now pending in Sacramento. The bill would make it unlawful for platforms, knowingly or carelessly, to cause children to become medically addicted to their platforms, to allow their algorithms to deliver “how to” suicide videos into the hands of depressed children, to repeatedly pummel girls with pro-anorexia content, or offer children easy ways to buy lethal fentanyl. 

Proving the bill is about harm prevention, if a platform operates appropriately and audits their practices to make sure they don’t cause these harms to children and reforms their practices if they find they do, there is no liability under the bill at all.

Utah recently passed a similar bill addressing social media addiction. California can regain the lead in child protection by passing the broader SB 287.

What will it take to pass this urgently needed measure?

Sacred Jewish texts say God would preserve the world for just 36 individuals, no matter how sinful and wicked the rest of us are. A mere handful of good people can preserve a whole planet from destruction.

To preserve the world of California’s children, the number isn’t 36, it is, coincidentally, 63.  That is the number of votes in takes between the state Assembly, the state Senate, and the Governor’s signature, for SB 287 to become law. 

And so, we ask, with our children in unprecedented peril, dying by suicide in record numbers, with our children helpless guinea pigs for the social media companies whose avarice knows no limits, where are our 63?

With Big Tech spending lavishly to defeat this bill in Sacramento, we will soon be able to see, through public votes and public actions, whether there are just 63 righteous people in Sacramento who choose to save a generation of children from needless death and anguish and, by doing so, preserve the world to come.

The Rev. Madison T. Shockley II is the pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad.Professor Robert Fellmeth is the Price Professor of Public Interest Law and executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law. Rabbi Steven Jacobs is a former winner of the Walter Cronkite Faith & Freedom Award and the founder of the Progressive Faith Foundation.