Minnesota lawmakers mull restrictions on social media algorithms for kids

The divided Minnesota Legislature may have found something to agree on: getting tough on big technology 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 for kids under age 18. An identical bill is scheduled for a Senate hearing next week.

Lawmakers from both parties said the social media companies were harming kids by contributing to body image issues, anxiety and depression. Tech companies opposed the bill in 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 the bill's author, said during the hearing. "Meanwhile, too many kids are struggling – or worse, dying."

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

Bryn Austin, a Harvard Chan School of Public Health professor, told lawmakers that 63 percent of teenagers and 13 percent of kids ages 8 to 12 are using social media platforms daily. A teen might see and like a weight loss before-and-after photo. Then, the social media platforms' algorithms will populate more similar content in 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 significant driver of profit for tech companies because they allow advertisers to target messages to specific audience segments.

Lobbyists for trade associations that represent the companies accused lawmakers of trying to stifle free speech and harm the user experience. Blocking user-generated content might stop kids from seeing healthy messages, 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 searching is accomplished through them, email knows where to go thanks to algorithms, smartphone apps are nothing but algorithms."

Lawmakers bristled at the companies' criticism, pointing out that representatives from Google, Facebook and Amazon didn't show up themselves but instead sent lobbyists from groups with names like NetChoice and Chamber of Progress.

One lawmaker compared social media's harms to kids with cigarettes 50 years ago.

"Why is it that we’re hearing from these trade associations and not the companies themselves? It’s because the companies know the public is wising up to the fact that their products are doing harm to consumers," said state Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids.

Lawmakers blamed tech companies for amplifying societal ills. State Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, said social media platforms' algorithms were responsible for narrowing people's viewpoints by feeding them content they agree with. State Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, said she struggled watching a family member deal with an eating disorder.

Multiple lawmakers said the bill needs additional work before it's ready for a vote on the House floor, while noting how much interest it had generated.

"I don’t know of any other bill that has drawn Republicans and Democrats together on a topic than the bill you have brought here," said state Rep. Tim O'Driscoll, R-Sartell.