New York Gov. Hochul signs bill to protect kids from addictive social media algorithms. How can these new rules be enforced?

Experts say there are a lot of unanswered questions.

Portrait of a teenage girl talking with mobile phone.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday signed a bill into law that aims to protect children and teens from social media feeds. (Getty Images)

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul on Thursday signed a bill into law that aims to protect children and teens from social media feeds, making her the latest government official to push for more platform restrictions in hopes of improving young users’ mental health.

The Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act, which passed the state legislature on June 7, aims to restrict their “addictive feeds” and algorithms for any users under the age of 18. The guidelines include:

  • Users under 18 will not experience addictive feeds on social media platforms unless parental consent is granted.

  • Social media platforms are prohibited from sending notifications to users under 18 between midnight and 6 a.m.

  • Online sites are prohibited from collecting, using, sharing or selling personal data of any users under the age of 18, unless there is informed parental consent or it’s necessary for the platform.

New York’s law will be enacted 180 days after New York Attorney General Letitia James finalizes guidelines. After that, social media platforms that violate the law will face a $5,000 fine per violation.

The push to restrict social media use for minors has been talked about in both state and federal legislatures. In May, California passed a similar bill demanding more parental controls and silencing notifications. Since the start of 2023, lawmakers in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Utah have also advocated for more age restrictions on social media platforms and more content regulation.

Earlier this week, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote an op-ed for the New York Times suggesting that Congress should make a warning label on social media platforms for teens — similar to the one on cigarette cartons.

Laws like New York’s have been backed by several parent groups, such as Mothers Against Media Addiction (MAMA), as countless research studies have proven the negative effects that social media has on young people. There have been other hurdles too, including battling tech industry lobbyists with big budgets.

But some experts in the field don’t want parents or government officials celebrating just yet. There are potential legal issues in implementing some of these regulations, with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union calling previous, similar social media bills a restriction to minors’ freedom of speech. Others aren’t sure how legislation like this will be properly implemented — especially details such as the age verification requirements.

“Many of the age rules are already required,” Jack Winston, a digital wellness expert and the CEO of BePresent, told Yahoo News. Most platforms already require users to be over 13 years old.

“[These rules] are hard to enforce because they are mostly self-reported,” Winston continued. “It’s an honor-based system that’s not effective.”

The major concern is about how age verification would be enforced. In response to the Safe for Kids Act, Julie Samuels, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Tech:NYC, pointed out that “neither the platforms impacted by these bills nor any of the lawmakers voting on them have any clarity on how age verification will work.”

According to a Thursday press release from the New York attorney general’s office, the process for establishing acceptable age verification and parent consent methods is “to be determined by [the attorney general’s office] as part of a rulemaking process.”

“We need large-scale awareness and education around how to establish a healthy media diet — but this doesn’t fully address the core problem,” Danny Weiss, Common Sense Media’s head of advocacy, told Yahoo News. “What we really need are laws that require social media companies to change the way they design and operate their platforms.”

Social media platforms employ algorithms to help curate hyperpersonalized feeds to keep the users on the site or the app for as long as possible. Reward stimuli, such as likes, notifications and comments, keep users engaged, but ultimately trap them in an endless loop of scrolling.

Part of the SAFE for Kids Act does address this, which Weiss says is what sets the legislation apart from previous attempts.

“[The law] requires that companies provide minors chronological feeds on social media rather than addictive algorithmic feeds — this means that minors will see content, say, on Instagram or Facebook, that are from people they know or that they subscribed to follow,” Weiss explained.

However, the chronological feeds are specified to be implemented for young users, which again brings back the issue of how age verification will work. Without proper thought into how this will work, Winston told Yahoo News that the law simply creates “an extra step in the account creation process, not a barrier.”

“Kids are smart when it comes to technology. If this isn’t strictly enforced, they will figure out a loophole, share it with their friends or post it on TikTok, and then the regulation becomes useless,” he said. “There is no silver bullet to this problem.”