Pols, Governor and AG Introduce New Legislation to Protect Children Online

By Oona Milliken | omilliken@queensledger.com

Amongst a wave of teachers dressed in pink, New York Attorney General Letitia James, Governor Kathy Hochul, State Senator Andrew Gounardes, and Assemblymember Nily Rozic announced new legislation that seeks to protect children online at the United Federation of Teachers Headquarters. The two bills, the Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation for Kids Act, also known as SAFE for Kids, as well as the New York Child Data Protection Act, are a part of the coalition’s efforts to put New York state at the forefront of data protection for children. 

In a speech, Senator Gounardes, whose district stretches from Southwestern Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights, said that the public could not rely on social media companies to protect children any longer and that they were expecting pushback from companies such as TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. 

“They’ve lied before, and they’re going to lie again…is this too strong for you guys? I’m sorry,” Gounardes said in the press conference. “They’re going to lie again, and we’re going to call them out on it, and we’re going to hold them accountable for what they’re doing.” 

The SAFE for Kids Act proposes a chronological feed for all children under 18 years of age, therefore abolishing what the lawmakers called an “addictive feed,” allow for parents to block children’s social media access as well as all notifications from social media platform between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. and provide a space for parents or guardians to bring claims against social media companies. 

The New York Child Data Protection Act will prohibit companies from collecting, sharing, storing or selling any data on those under the age of 18. Violations of these rules will result in a $5,000 fine per child everyday until the issue is resolved. Breaches of the proposed legislation would be pursued and handled by the NYS Attorney General’s Office. 

Though speakers at the press conference denigrated social media as a major cause of mental illness amongst young people, other voices disagree. Critics of the legislation, such as Melanie Sage, former Meta employee and a professor of social work at the University of Buffalo specializing in child development, argue that there is little research that shows that social media by itself causes mental illness or suicidal ideation. Sage said that framing social media as the sole cause of the mental health crisis amongst young people was a convenient scapegoat but not necessarily the true root of the problem. 

“I think the riskiest [thing] about this really is that it’s a simple answer saying that social media is a mental health problem and that’s clearly not the case, you know, even in terms of suicidality. During COVID, for large groups of adolescents, the rates of suicide or suicide attempts actually went down and technology use went up a lot,” Sage said. “If we’re going to make assumptions it might even be that school is a major cause of suicidality and we would never say that kids should not go to school because of that.” 

According to Sage, the studies were quite mixed on effects of social usage amongst teens and pointed to a Clinical Psychological Science study that showed that social media had not increased mental health symptoms over the past decade. Sage said that depression or anxiety alongside heavy social media usage might be correlation amongst teens but urged legislators to instead expand insurance coverage and healthcare coverage for those young people. Still, other studies, such as ones cited in the Wall Street Journal, indicate that social media companies like Facebook are aware that their platforms are dangerous for young people. 

Sage said she supported moving towards a chronological feed and limiting notifications for children but also worried that limiting access to social media might harm children at increased risk who might find a community online. 

“There are kids who find solace, support, including mental health support, in having social media contacts particularly kids who are at risk in other ways such as LGBTQ kids who are looking for community,” Sage said. “I worry a little about any blanket statement that increases the sense of community blame on social media.” 

The legislation comes at a time when multiple states across the country are pursuing stronger data protection acts, such as Utah, California, Colorado, Virginia and Connecticut, according to reporting by LexisNexis. The New York State bills are the first of its kind that seeks to protect children specifically since COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, established in 1998. Michael Mulgrow, president of the United Federation of Teachers, criticized other districts for dropping the ball on moving forward with legislation of this kind. 

“And once again, it is New York leading the way. We’re not going to be Washington DC who keeps saying ‘We have gridlock.’ It’s not gridlock. It’s lobbyists stopping them,” Mulgrow said during the press conference. “But it’s one we’re gonna get done because the children of New York deserve protection when they’re on their phones.”

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