Can a law make social media less 'addictive'?
Can a law make social media less 'addictive'?

Can a law make social media less 'addictive'?

New York just passed a law on "addictive" social media feeds for children, but some researchers are questioning what that actually means.


New York Governor Kathy Hochul was clear about her opinion of social media earlier this month, speaking at a press conference to announce the signing of two new state laws designed to protect under-18-year-olds from the dangers the online world.

The apps are responsible for transforming "happy-go-lucky kids into teenagers who are depressed", she said, but according to Hochul, the legislation she signed off on would help. 

"Today, we save our children," Hochul said. "Young people across the nation are facing a mental health crisis fueled by addictive social media feeds."

Starting in 2025, these new laws could force apps including TikTok and Instagram to send some children back to the earliest days of social media, before content was tailored by users' "likes" and tech giants collected data about our interests, moods, habits and more. 

The Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act requires social media platforms and app stores seek parental consent before children under 18 use apps with "addictive feeds", a groundbreaking attempt to regulate algorithmic recommendations. 

The SAFE Act will even prevent apps from sending notifications to child or teenage users between midnight and 6am – practically a legal bedtime for devices – and require better age verification to avoid children slipping through undetected. 

The second law, the New York Child Data Protection Act, limits the information app providers collect about their users.

"By reining in addictive feeds and shielding kids' personal data, we'll provide a safer digital environment, give parents more peace of mind, and create a brighter future for young people across New York," Hochul explained.

The laws are part of growing concerns over the effects of social media on the mental health of young people. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently went as far as calling for warning labels for social media apps, similar to the notices on cigarette packaging. 

In the US and many parts of the world, young people are facing a mental health crisis, and even big tech employees have acknowledged the harms they've caused some children.

But the science linking social media and mental health problems is far less clear than many assume. 

In fact, numerous studies have even shown social media can have benefits for teenagers' mental health. It's led some technology analysts and child psychologists to call recent political interventions a "moral panic".

Some policy advocates and social media experts also question how easy legislative interventions like the SAFE Act will be to enforce. 

They say it could set back the much-needed efforts to address the real hazards of social media, such as child sexual abuse material, privacy violations, hate speech, misinformation, dangerous and illegal content and more.

Mixed messages

Many studies that do find a link with poor mental health outcomes focus on "problematic social media use", where individuals have a lack of regulation over their use of social media. 

This has been associated with increased prevalence of various forms of anxiety, for example, but also depression and stress. Some studies suggest there is a dose-related aspect at work, where negative mental health symptoms increase with time spent on social media. 

But other studies suggest such associations are weak or have even found no evidence that pins the spread of social media to widespread psychological problems.

Mixed responses

Some experts in online safety have welcomed the new laws in New York.

"While New York's legislation is much broader and less targeted on concrete harms than the UK's Online Safety Act, it's clear that regulation is the only way that big tech will clean up its algorithms and stop children being recommended huge amounts of harmful suicide and self-harm content," says Andy Burrows, an advisor at the Molly Rose Foundation, set up by the parents of Molly Russell, a UK teenager who killed herself in 2017 after seeing a series of self-harm images on social media – a contributing factor to her death, according to a landmark ruling in 2022 by a London coroner.


Burrows says Hochul's swift actions should be seen favourably compared to the US Congress, which he claims "drags its feet on passing comprehensive federal measures".

"The bar is quite low and this legislation only stands out as better compared to the numerous pieces of bad legislation out there," says Jess Maddox, assistant professor in digital media at the University of Alabama. 

"In terms of states in the US trying to regulate social media, this is some of the better attempts I've seen."

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