Minnesota lawmakers mull restrictions on social media algorithms for kids


Minnesota’s divided legislature may have found something to agree on: cracking down on big tech companies.

This week, a House committee voted 15-1 in favor of legislation banning social media platforms like Facebook, Tik Tok and YouTube from using algorithms to target user-generated content to children under 18 years old. An identical bill is scheduled for an upcoming Senate hearing. week.

Lawmakers on both sides have said social media companies harm children by contributing to body image issues, anxiety and depression. Tech companies opposed the bill at a House Commerce Committee hearing, but their comments may have had the unintended consequence of uniting lawmakers.

“They’ve been saying they’re going to do something for too many years,” State Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove and author of the bill, said during the hearing. “Meanwhile, too many children are struggling – or worse, dying.”

Under the restrictions, children would only see content from people they befriended on social media sites. The legislation exempts user-generated content created by colleges and universities, meaning a school would be allowed to send targeted social media messages to high school students.

Bryn Austin, a professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, told lawmakers that 63% of teens and 13% of children ages 8 to 12 use social media platforms daily. A teenager can see and like a before and after weight loss photo. Then the social media platforms’ algorithms will fill more similar content into the user’s feed, Austin said.

“We’ve known for years that social media platforms, especially image-based platforms like Instagram, can have very harmful effects on teen mental health,” she said.

Algorithms are a big profit driver for tech companies because they allow advertisers to target messages to specific audience segments.

Trade association lobbyists who represent companies have accused lawmakers of trying to stifle free speech and undermine the user experience. Blocking user-generated content could prevent children from seeing wholesome posts, they said.

“The internet as we know it today runs on algorithms,” said Tyler Diers of TechNet, an industry group that has several tech company executives on its board. “All online searches are done through them, email knows where to go thanks to algorithms, smartphone apps are just algorithms.”

Lawmakers bristled at criticism from the companies, pointing out that representatives from Google, Facebook and Amazon did not show up but instead sent lobbyists from groups with names such as NetChoice and Chamber of Progress.

A lawmaker compared social media harm to children with cigarettes 50 years ago.

“Why are we hearing from these trade associations and not the companies themselves? It’s because the companies know that the public is aware that their products are harming consumers,” said State Rep. Zack Stephenson. , DFL. -Coon Rapids.

Lawmakers have accused tech companies of amplifying societal ills. State Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, said social media platform algorithms were responsible for narrowing down people’s views by providing content they agreed with. State Representative Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud said she struggled to watch a family member deal with an eating disorder.

Several lawmakers said the bill needed further work before it was ready for a vote in the House, while noting the interest it had generated.

“I don’t know of any other bill that has brought Republicans and Democrats together on one subject than the bill you introduced here,” said state Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, R-Sartell.


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