Virginia House punts on proposal to prohibit ‘addictive’ social media feeds for minors

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

Virginia lawmakers seem to agree that kids spending too much time on social media is a problem. But they’re not ready to pass new laws on the topic just yet.

On Monday, a Democratic-led House of Delegates subcommittee voted to delay action on a Democratic state senator’s proposal to prohibit social media companies from using “addictive” feeds to encourage kids under 18 to endlessly scroll through videos and other content served up via algorithms designed to capture attention.

The bill had passed the Virginia Senate unanimously, but the House Communications Subcommittee voted 9-1 to send it to the legislature’s Joint Commission on Technology and Science for more study. Del. Holly Seibold, D-Fairfax, called the proposal “a great bill” but said it needed a closer look “along with all other social media concerns.”

The move came after representatives for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and other technology companies said the proposed bill was so vague they wouldn’t be able to comply with it.

At the House subcommittee hearing, Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said he found it “kind of baffling” that social media companies claimed to not understand what would be expected of them.

“I mean, come on,” VanValkenburg said. “All they have to do is turn off the addictive algorithm that makes it so that the nonstop stuff keeps going.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made safeguarding children from the harms of social media a major talking point.

In his speech to the General Assembly last month, the governor asked lawmakers to send him a bill “that empowers parents to protect their children and prohibits tech companies from selling the data of children under the age of 18.” Several Republican lawmakers introduced bills on the topic this year, but they too failed to advance.

With broad, bipartisan support in the Senate, VanValkenburg’s narrower social media bill seemed to have better odds of passage since Democrats control both legislative chambers.

A high school teacher who said he’s seen firsthand how social media can impact teenagers’ schoolwork and mental health, VanValkenburg argued his bill wouldn’t impose sweeping new limits on minors’ access to social media or their ability to see content from friends or accounts they choose to follow. Instead, he said, the bill deals with just “one thing.”

“That one thing is about a minor being on the phone and just staring at it nonstop because they keep getting content pumped to them,” the senator said.

The legislation would have prevented social media platforms from serving an “addictive feed” to users known to be under 18 without parental consent. The definition of addictive feed would still allow minors to see content they have “expressly and unambiguously requested.”

According to tech companies, the bill wasn’t so simple.

Eric Link, a lobbyist for the Northern Virginia Technology Council — whose members include Meta and Google — said it wasn’t clear what “unambiguous” meant because it wasn’t defined in the bill.

“We don’t argue about the policy goals of this bill,” Link told the House subcommittee. “But we do argue about our ability to comply with it.”

In a letter raising concerns about the bill, Meta said it could require all new users of social media platforms to share sensitive personal information in order to verify their identity and age. The company said Instagram already includes several features designed to encourage teens to take breaks after scrolling the app for long periods.

A more effective solution to the issue, the company said, is federal legislation requiring parental approval whenever kids under 16 attempt to download products from app stores.

“While we acknowledge the underlying intent of Senate Bill 359, we believe this bill, as currently drafted, fails to create robust, industry-wide standards that help Virginia parents and teens manage their online activity,” Meta Public Policy Manager Beauclarine Thomas said in the letter.

VanValkenburg said he’ll work with the technology commission over the next year and reintroduce the legislation in 2025. The negative social impacts of kids getting hooked on social media, he told House members, are increasingly obvious.

“When you’re on your phone staring at videos all day, you’re not talking to your friends. You’re not talking to adults,” he said. “You’re not interacting with the world.”

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