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Hochul and James back crackdown on social media algorithms aimed at children

Gov. Kathy Hochul lends support for bills to protect children using social media at an event held Oct. 11, 2023, at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters in New York City. Attorney General Letitia James is at left; bill sponsors Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Nily Rozic are at right.
Susan Watts
/
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul lends support for bills to protect children using social media at an event held Oct. 11, 2023, at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters in New York City. Attorney General Letitia James is at left; bill sponsors Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assemblymember Nily Rozic are at right.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Tish James are putting their weight behind two bills that would make the state a leader in protecting children from some of the harm caused by using social media.

“Our children are in crisis,” Hochul said Wednesday at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters in New York City. “And it’s up to us to save them.”

She cited a warning from the U.S. surgeon general that says children who spend three hours or more a day on social media are twice as likely to experience depression.

Self-harm rates among 10- to 14-year-old girls have risen by 200% since 2011, when social media companies started using algorithms more regularly to determine what a user sees in their feed. Some teen suicides have been attributed to social media use.

Hochul said companies like TikTok, YouTube, and X, formerly known as Twitter, employ sophisticated and toxic algorithms. And she said teenage girls are especially vulnerable.

“You understand how an algorithm works. It follows you. It preys on you,” Hochul said. “You don't ask for this content. It finds its way to you by very sophisticated ways that the social media companies have created to continue bombarding you and penetrating your mind with images and thoughts.”

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Kathleen Spence said her daughter, Alexis, created an Instagram account without her parents’ consent when she was 11 years old to play an online game associated with a brand of stuffed animals. The innocent fun took a dark turn when Alexis started clicking on posts about fitness and body image. She ended up on sites promoting anorexia, and she developed an eating disorder.

“It took years for our daughter to overcome her social media addiction and to finally recover from her eating disorder, her self-harm and her attempt to take her own life,” Spence said.

Alexis is now 21.

The measures include the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation, or SAFE, for Kids Act. It would require social media companies to get parental consent before applying algorithms to minors’ accounts. Parents also would have to give permission for notifications to appear on their children’s phones and tablets between midnight and 6 a.m.

Another bill, the Children’s Privacy Act, would forbid social media companies from harvesting personal data from minors.

Violators could face fines of up to $5,000 for each instance. James would be empowered to enforce those laws and impose penalties. James said the bills are crafted to withstand potential constitutional challenges and do not prohibit children’s participation on platforms where they meet the minimum age requirement.

“Both of these bills will in no way block minors or anyone from accessing social media platforms,” James said. “Minors will have the same access they did before to connect with friends, search for topics of interest and join groups. They just won't be shown addictive feeds unless their parents consent to it.”

The measures are sponsored in the Senate by Andrew Gounardes and in the Assembly by Nily Rozic. Both are majority-party Democrats.

They have the backing of some of the state’s most powerful unions, including the United Federation of Teachers.

The measures won’t be acted on until the Legislature comes back for the 2024 session in January.

The governor, attorney general and bill sponsors said they expect stiff resistance from the tech industry, which has a large corporate presence in New York.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.