Parents concerned about addictive social media have the ear of Tish James

The New York attorney general is turning her attention to Big Tech – pushing legislation to give her office the power to crack down on algorithms targeting kids.

From left, New York State United Teachers Political Director Nicki Richardson, Assembly Member Michaelle Solages and state Attorney General Letitia James.

From left, New York State United Teachers Political Director Nicki Richardson, Assembly Member Michaelle Solages and state Attorney General Letitia James. Holly Pretsky

In the basement of the public library in Floral Park on Saturday, parents shared stories of their children’s mental health trials. “We saw our kid almost put a knife on his hand,” one father said.  A mother said her daughter started cutting herself in middle school and later developed a serious eating disorder and suicidal ideation. A pediatrician said his office has been overwhelmed with mental health cases: “It’s more common than the cold now.” Another father said he observed that his kids were “dysregulated” after hours of being on their phones. But during those rare times when they managed to pry themselves away from their feeds, he said, the shift in their demeanor was dramatic. “After a day or two days of not having it, who they really are comes back.”

The parents all attributed their children’s struggles at least in part to excessive social media use, and they attended the roundtable to share their concerns with their hosts, Democratic Assembly Member Michaelle Solages and state Attorney General Letitia James. The elected officials invited them, along with educators, mental health advocates and school administrators, to discuss how New York might curb social media companies through regulation. 

A Gallup poll last year found that half of American teens say they spend more than four hours each day on social media. The uptick in social media use has correlated with a spike in rates of anxiety and depression among young people. This summer, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory warning of possible mental health harms caused by social media, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams has declared social media to be an “environmental toxin.”

The attorney general is attempting a new approach to address social media companies’ seemingly unlimited ability to shape kids’ experience of their lives and relationships. She’s setting aside content regulation (e.g. banning content that encourages dangerous behavior) and instead targeting the mechanism itself: the social media algorithm. Sometimes called the “newsfeed” or the “infinite scroll,” the algorithm is the system by which the social media platform serves up content to the user that they haven’t directly sought out. The algorithms are informed by the user’s own data, and their goal is to keep the user engaged on the platform for as long as possible.  

In close collaboration with the offices of Democratic sponsors state Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Nily Rozic, the state attorney general is proposing two measures:

– The Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act would target social media algorithms, prohibiting addictive feeds for kids under 18 without parental consent. It would also prohibit social media apps from sending notifications to kids’ phones between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. without parental consent. The SAFE for Kids Act would give the attorney general the power to seek $5,000 in damages from the companies for each violation.

– The Child Data Protection Act would prohibit companies from collecting personal data of kids under 12 without parental consent and that of kids under 18 without informed consent. Social media companies would have to apply privacy protections when they know that a user is a child, and they would be prohibited from making their services undesirable or unusable to people who don’t consent to the harvesting of their private information.

Both bills have support from Gov. Kathy Hochul, and James told the roundtable that they are expected to be considered as part of this year’s state budget bills – not as standalone bills.

The bills have drawn opposition from the tech companies, obviously, but there has also been some concern from data surveillance watchdogs. Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Executive Director Albert Fox Cahn supports the Child Data Protection Act, but has serious qualms with the SAFE For Kids Act due to that bill’s age verification requirements. Fox Cahn said he shares the lawmakers’ concerns about social media, but that the SAFE For Kids Act is “doomed to empower the really troubling nationwide effort by far-right lawmakers to destroy anonymity online” through the requirement that social media companies verify their users’ ages.

“Not only is that going to require creepy social media sites to gather even more data, it's going to be error prone and discriminatory,” he told City & State. The bill is vague about how age will be determined, saying it could be done “through a browser plug-in or privacy setting, device setting, or other mechanism.”

The attorney general’s office says the specifics of how users’ ages will be verified will be determined during the rulemaking process after the bill is passed and that government ID will not be required. The Child Data Protection Act, in contrast, requires social media companies to proactively protect data for users they already know to be children.

James’ attendance at the library roundtable comes at a career peak. She recently secured a state court ruling requiring former President Donald Trump to pay more than $350 million in damages, and she was victorious in a fraud case against the former head of the National Rifle Association. Big tech is the latest issue of national import James is pursuing. 

Assembly Member Solages acknowledged the hype to applause: “Sometimes government may be slow, but we have Tish James on our side.”