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New York lawmakers pass a law to keep kids safe on social media

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  • New York state has passed the SAFE for Kids Act to protect children from addictive social media feeds and enhance parental control.
  • The legislation mandates age verification and parental consent for algorithmic feeds, and prohibits the exploitation of minors' data.
  • Despite support from various advocacy groups, the bill faces opposition from tech industry organizations concerned about its implementation and potential unintended consequences.

In a historic move, New York state lawmakers have passed a pioneering piece of legislation designed to protect children from the addictive nature of social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. This landmark measure, known as the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act, aims to curb the negative impact of social media on young users by restricting the use of algorithmic feeds and enhancing parental control over their children's online activities.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a staunch advocate for the legislation, highlighted the urgent need to address the mental health crisis among children, which she believes is exacerbated by social media. "Our children are experiencing a mental health crisis, and social media is fanning the flames and profiting from the epidemic," James stated. The SAFE for Kids Act mandates that social media companies authenticate users' ages and secure parental consent before granting children access to algorithmic feeds. Without parental consent, children will only be able to view social media content in chronological order, thereby reducing the addictive nature of these platforms.

The legislation also includes the New York Child Data Protection Act, which prohibits tech companies from selling or exploiting minors' data. This dual approach not only aims to protect children from harmful content but also safeguards their personal information from being misused by tech giants.

Governor Kathy Hochul, who is expected to sign both bills into law, has been a vocal supporter of the measure. At a recent press event in Albany, Hochul accused social media companies of "bombarding young people with these absolutely addictive algorithms." The bill's proponents argue that removing algorithm-fueled feeds will reduce the addictiveness of social media apps and mitigate the harm inflicted on minors.

The call for bolstered online protections for children gained momentum following revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. Haugen's internal research showed that Facebook-owned Instagram posed significant dangers to some teen girls. Additionally, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned last year that excessive social media use poses a "profound risk" to children's mental health.

Despite the widespread support for the legislation, it has faced opposition from various advocacy and industry groups. The Chamber of Progress, a tech industry organization supported by firms like Meta, Apple, and Amazon, warned that the measures could worsen social media feeds for children by limiting tools that filter harmful content. "Instead of giving teenagers a healthier online experience, New York’s bills could prevent platforms from ensuring age-appropriate feeds for teens," the organization stated.

The New York Inclusive Internet Coalition, representing marginalized groups, also criticized the measure, arguing that it threatens the community offered by social media platforms. "We believe the ability to freely use the internet is an important right — particularly for LGBTQ+ youth, undocumented immigrants, young women exercising their reproductive rights, and the elderly," the organization said.

Julie Samuels, president and CEO of Tech:NYC, acknowledged the bills' objective of safeguarding children online but expressed uncertainty regarding the implementation of age verification. "These bills include some positive changes that will bring them closer to achieving lawmakers' intention of protecting children online — a goal that Tech:NYC and our member companies support. However, neither the platforms affected by these bills nor any of the lawmakers voting on them have any clarity on how age verification will work," Samuels stated.

As New York prepares to implement these groundbreaking measures, the tech industry is expected to mount a legal challenge. Nevertheless, this legislation sets a significant precedent for social media content delivery to minors nationwide, potentially inspiring other states to follow suit in protecting the mental health and privacy of young users.

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