Opinion: California Missed An Opportunity to Protect Children From Social Media

Photo by globalmoments/iStock.

California children can and do get addicted to social media. A bill introduced this year, Assembly Bill 2408, would have allowed public prosecutors — the attorney general and district attorneys — to bring civil lawsuits against social media giants who knowingly addict children. This important first step in holding the companies who profit from these digital apps accountable for the harm they cause passed the Assembly. But a Senate committee held it in “suspense,” a black hole where controversial bills are parked indefinitely with no explanation required. 

AB 2408 would have been the first law of its kind in the nation, and a call for accountability and better behavior from companies that make and profit from digital content. While those who advocated for it are no doubt disappointed, I hope they will continue this critical work. 

As a psychiatrist, I regularly see patients with severe, life-threatening addictions to digital content, including social media. Their disease progression is the same as patients I treat who are addicted to drugs like cigarettes, cannabis and alcohol. They start using to have fun or to cope with a personal problem. Over time their brains change making it difficult if not impossible to stop even when they want to. They suffer the downstream effects of addiction: anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia and mental preoccupation, otherwise known as a craving.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Meta (formerly known as Facebook and the owner of Instagram and Snapchat), did its own analysis, as leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. According to Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, the company’s data found that between 5.8 and 8 percent of 14 year olds who had been using Facebook’s products for a year were engaging in “problematic use.” Facebook, Haugen said in testimony to the British parliament, described problematic use as the “addict’s narrative,” referring to the vortex of continued, compulsive overconsumption despite harm to oneself and/or others. 

Not everyone who uses social media will become addicted to social media, just as not everyone who drinks alcohol will become addicted to alcohol. In a twelve-month period, 14 percent of Americans will meet diagnostic criteria for an alcohol addiction. But for the subset of people vulnerable to social media addiction (which the data suggest includes teens, especially teen girls) the potential for harm is real and devastating. The adolescent brain does not reach full synaptic maturity until age 25. Those early years are hence a pivotal time for fostering healthy brain connections. For this very reason we have laws to prevent teens from consuming a variety of legal drugs, from gambling to cigarettes.

Currently, parents, teachers and school districts pay the price for teens addicted to digital media. If we hope to reverse the current trends afflicting our children, we must hold these large, multi-billion-dollar companies responsible for the part they play in creating highly addictive products. The well-being of countless vulnerable children depends on it. 

California lawmakers had an opportunity this year to address the problem of teens who become addicted to social media. If AB 2408 had been heard by the full Senate it may have become a model for the nation. Children are vulnerable to the behavioral manipulation that is built into many of the most popular social media platforms – it’s up to us to protect them. 

Anna Lembke is professor and medical director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford University and author of Dopamine Nation, Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.

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