Tick Tock for TikTok as Kids Addiction to App Grows

Priya Gupta 

Associate Editor 

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024 

In June of this year, a new California bill, which allows social media companies to be sued by state government attorneys for having features that contribute to the addiction of children to their apps, cleared the state Senate. The bill was originally brought to California’s state assembly as one that would permit parents to sue social media giants for up to $25,000 per violation but was later amended after lobbying from business and tech-industry groups. The worry that social media is able to exploit children through ads, notifications, and other features in the design that are promoting addiction has amplified since the premiere of 2020 documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” Since then, the warning that regulation was looming has quickly turned into actual movement towards regulating the actions of social media companies. The bill has since failed, a disappointing end to an initiative that could have made a real change towards keeping social media giants in check.  

Investigations into TikTok and Meta 

On March 2, 2022, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the launching of a nationwide investigation into TikTok, a popular app that has over one billion monthly users, which mirrors a similar nationwide investigation into Meta that was announced in November 2021. The ongoing investigation is aimed at determining if the advertisements and design features of their applications, TikTok and Instagram, are facilitating the addiction that children have to social media.  

Both companies have stated that they are rolling out features that they believe will discourage the over-use of apps. TikTok has said that it has started to employ features such as stopping notifications at night for users under the age of 18, as well as allowing parents to have time caps that block access to the app. Meta has also announced that they have started to allow parents to block access to the app during certain times of the day, and that they have upgraded age-verification protocols on Instagram, such as reminders to take a break from consuming content. However, Meta has still not been able to retroactively apply these to users who have already registered as being 18 and older.   

The proposal 

The original bill allowing parents to sue, called the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, was a bipartisan bill introduced by California State Assembly members Jordan Cunningham (Republican), and Buffy Wicks (Democrat), and was partly influenced by a 2021 reporting that found that one in right users of Meta Platforms Inc., reported engaging in compulsive use of social media that affected their sleep, work, relationships, and even parenting. Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, also exposed the fact that Facebook (now Meta), knew of the extent to which its platforms cause significant harm, especially to children, and that some social media companies are financially motivated to use designs that increase the likelihood of addiction amongst all users including children. The bill would be able to hold tech giants, especially Byte Dance Ltd. (owner of TikTok) and Meta (owner of Instagram) liable for social media addiction regardless of whether they were deliberately designed to be addictive or not.  

Although the bill has since been amended to allow only government attorneys to file suit, the purpose of the bill remains the same – regulating the harm companies create towards facilitating addiction.  

Where is the bill now?  

The bill initially passed in California’s Senate Judiciary Committee with a vote of 8-0, and it was sent to the state Senate Appropriations Committee. It then needed to pass through a key legislative committee, since it was among a list of bills that had to be vetted by the powerful appropriations committees before it could advance to the state Senate. Unfortunately, it failed this step. If it had passed, tech companies could have faced penalties of $25,000 per violation and $250,000 if they are found to have knowingly used any features that are harmful. The bill would have heavily regulated companies, almost to the point that Internet-privacy advocates had greatly opposed the legislation since it could create issues with freedom of speech.  

If the bill had been codified into law, it would have added to the on-going efforts to regulate the effects that social-media giants have on children and may have even caused companies to make their apps 18 plus, eliminating the youth market all together. 

What happens next? 

I think that this bill being struck down casts a very disparaging outlook on similar bills that are looking to be passed. With that being said, the trend of new social media platforms and the growth that they are seeing does give rise to the fact that addiction may get worse and may one day, possibly in the near future, force congress to act in terms of regulating social media giants.