California Legislature advances bill aiming to stymie harm caused by social media through a peer-to-peer program


Hannah Saunders


While social media platforms can help connect diverse communities and create a sense of belonging, youth often face negative experiences using them, like increased rates of depression and anxiety. The California Assembly’s Health Committee met on April 9 to discuss Assembly Bill 2390, known as the Social Media Harm Reduction Pilot Program, which could help combat negative social media experiences. 

Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), AB 2390 sponsor, said children and adolescents using social media should be able to do so safely, and that AB 2390 would address the mental health impacts that result from intentionally addictive designs of social media platforms.

“Social media companies have abused their positions as facilitators of some of the most personal, human interactions by prioritizing screen time and profits over the mental health of their users. Social media’s addictive design exacerbates compulsive and obsessive behaviors, detracting from real world, in-person engagement, and contributing to social isolation,” Arambula said. 

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AB 2390 would establish a peer-to-peer pilot program on social media to develop methods to mitigate the harm youth experience through the modern social media platform design. 

The U.S. surgeon general is also focusing on the link between social media use and its impacts on youth mental health. The federal Health and Human Services Agency (HHS) found that up to 95 percent of youth ages 13-17 reported using at least one social media platform. Two-thirds of youth reported using social media daily, while one-third reported using social media almost constantly. HHS found that teenagers spend an average of 3.5 hours on social media per day. 

Dr. Flojaune Cofer, senior director of policy at Public Health Advocates, co-sponsors AB 2390, and noted the importance of engaging peer programs to develop and evaluate a curriculum for healthy social media habits and K-12 online safety standards. 

“Social media is a really new technology, and I must remind us of that. It exists in and has also contributed to a major restructuring of social engagement. So, we want to state plainly that it does a lot of good—allowing people to find niche communities to support their identities and interests—and many people, including young people, use social media and have positive experiences.”

— Cofer

Benefits of social media use among youth include making connections to others with shared identities, abilities, and interests. Social media is especially important for the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities, ethnically diverse populations, and individuals living with disabilities. The surgeon general’s social media and youth mental health advisory states that social media can lead to feelings of acceptance, support during challenging times, a place for youth to express themselves and their creativity, and knowledge of their loved ones’ lives. The advisory notes that social media can be beneficial in relation to promoting help-seeking behaviors, and as a gateway to initiating mental healthcare. 

“This bill is intended to help youth maximize those benefits and minimize the harm,” Cofer said. “There is almost a desperation among parents for help in navigating appropriate and safe online habits.” 

Nancy Aguilar, from the Healthy Online Platforms for Everyone (HOPE) Youth Coalition, said she hopes social media platforms are held accountable for the harm they cause, while promoting positive messaging—something she believes AB 2390 would help accomplish. 

“I’ve seen youth face harassment and death threats,” Aguilar said. “Some even had their information doxxed, which puts them in danger.” 

Social media platforms can lead to cyberbullying-related depression, issues with body image, disordered eating behaviors, and poor sleep, according to the surgeon general’s advisory report. Some social media platforms show live depictions of self-harm acts like cutting. The consumption of this content can normalize these types of behaviors. 

According to the surgeon general’s advisory report, a review of 36 studies show that adolescent girls and sexual-minority youth are more likely to report incidents of cyberbullying than others. Social media platforms can also display racist content or language, and can be used for the sexual exploitation of minors. Excessive social media use and problematic content consumption, like compulsive or uncontrollable use, is linked to sleep issues, attention issues, and feelings of exclusion in youth. 

The Health Committee passed AB 2390 by a vote of 13-0, and referred it to the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection.

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