Gov. Kathy Hochul, right, speaks next to Attorney General Letitia...

Gov. Kathy Hochul, right, speaks next to Attorney General Letitia James during a news conference in Manhatttan on Oct. 11, 2023. New York is looking to put new controls on social media platforms. Credit: AP/Seth Wenig

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul’s push to restrict young people’s exposure to addictive social media feeds is running up against lobbying from Big Tech and the State Legislature’s desire to put it off until the state budget is settled.

Hochul, along with state Attorney General Letitia James, wants New York to ban social media platforms from providing addictive, algorithm-based feeds to those under the age of 18 without parental consent. They say it will protect young people’s mental health by limiting potential negative effects of social media including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Democrats, who control the state Senate and Assembly, said they are generally supportive of the initiative, but the bill needs to be amended. They said the issue requires deeper discussion and shouldn’t get looped into the state budget, which is due April 1.

“I think the problem is it’s a very complex issue that we all want to address. It’s critically important,” Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) told Newsday. “I think it’s going to be difficult in the budget, which is why it got taken out of both houses.”

Hochul, a Democrat, last week told reporters “it’s incredibly important” that the language make it into the budget. “If we don’t have the guts to take action to protect our children from what has now been demonstrated to have a detrimental effect on mental health, then shame on us,” she said.

The proposed legislation, known as the “Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation for Kids Act,” or SAFE for Kids Act, also would require parental consent for social media platforms to send notifications to minors between midnight and 6 a.m., and give parents the ability to limit the number of hours their child spends on a platform. Platforms not in compliance could face civil penalties of up to $5,000 per violation.

Down a rabbit hole

What makes social media platforms “addictive” is they employ algorithms that use information on what the user clicks on to tailor content potentially leading them down a rabbit hole, said Sarah Domoff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University at Albany and expert on media use during childhood.

Excessive use and access to triggering content, particularly around bedtime, can negatively impact children’s health and mental health, and has been linked to depression, self-harm or suicidal thoughts, as well as negative body image and low self-worth, experts said.

Before these addictive algorithms, posts were chronological and based on who the user follows, Domoff said. Allowing parents to switch back “could be really powerful” and help parents navigate the digital world, she said.

The legislation would regulate how content can be shown, not what is said, reducing the potential for legal battles over First Amendment rights, bill sponsor Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) told Newsday. “The severe harms that are caused by social media to young kids and the impact that it’s having on them is obviously very, very concerning,” he said.

‘Endless questions’

There are “endless questions” with anything regarding algorithms and technology access, Senate Finance Committee chairwoman Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) told reporters last week.

Questions include how the platforms would verify user age without igniting data privacy concerns, and how a law in New York would relate to potential actions from other states and the federal government, lawmakers said. Bill advocates said social media companies already have tools to verify age, so it’s a nonissue.

Legislative leaders are discussing potential changes to the bill to make sure it’s “effective and practical,” Gianaris said, such as working through how the platforms would set up age verification without violating the user’s privacy.

The proposal also faces the fierce lobbying efforts of tech and social media companies, including Tech:NYC, a nonprofit industry group whose members include Meta, formerly known as Facebook; Google; and Yahoo.

Tech:NYC has raised questions over how age verification will be enforced, how to prove a parental relationship online and how other online platforms such as news sites and blogs would be impacted.

“We’ll continue working with lawmakers to find a path forward that makes social media safe for all users without upending huge swaths of the internet,” Julie Samuels, president and executive director of Tech:NYC, said in an emailed statement.

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