Internet giants hurt kids, concert goers and journalism

by Tom Philp

America’s youth spend more time on social media networks than on homework. Popular outlets like YouTube and TikTok have unfettered freedom to keep kids addicted to their businesses by analyzing their interests and sending an unrelenting feed of images. Researchers are increasingly worried about how all this exposure is impacting behavior and self-esteem.

The information age is racing ahead of the government’s ability to monitor or manage it. With Washington in a perpetual state of gridlock, the states must set some reasonable boundaries. The California Legislature is trying just that with a series of bills this year that have the industry’s attention. While finding some sensible and workable reforms is not easy, this is definitely worth the effort.

Some examples:

‘Addictive Feeds’

Senate Bill 976 by Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, seeks to prevent social media platforms from targeting children with unsolicited notifications.

Using complex algorithms to assess a user’s age and interests, social media companies can create an addictive cycle of usage that can keep youths glued to these outlets and their screens, no matter the hour. SB 976 would prevent these platforms, when knowing the age of users, from sending notifications to minors from midnight to 6 a.m. and the weekday school hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

SB 976 seeks to give parents the ability to shut down an “addictive feed” entirely. Each platform would have to establish a parental consent process after identifying the young user and his or her parents. This would be a new tool for parents seeking to reduce their children’s exposure to social media. While this concept has some technical and logistical challenges, it shifts decision-making from the social media companies back to families. There is no substitute for parenting.

Entertainment’s near monopoly

Ticketmaster controls the majority of primary ticket sales to America’s big concerts and sporting events. It can also exert vertical economic power when it has the performer, venue, and ticket-selling apparatus under contract.

The Legislature hopes to lower ticket prices by creating legislation encouraging more consumer options for buying tickets. Assembly Bill 2808 by Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, would prohibit Ticketmaster or any primary ticket seller from having an exclusive long-term contract with venues such as arenas.

Shaking up California’s entertainment industry is no small task, with AB 2808 remaining a work in progress since its first hearings last month. But with neither Congress nor the executive branch taking decisive action in Washington, that leaves Sacramento as the venue for progress.

News revenue sharing

Search engines like Google and social media companies like Facebook have become the primary news sources for many American consumers, though these companies do not produce news content. The migration of advertising revenues from the news companies to these Internet giants has hastened the decline in news gathering in California and worldwide.

Wicks is again at the forefront of this battlefront in the new economy by seeking to redirect some news-related profits back to the outlets that produce the news. Assembly Bill 886, the California Journalism Preservation Act, would require search engine/social media platforms to either reach agreements with the news providers on profit sharing or resolve the matter through arbitration.

The legislation cleared the Assembly last year and awaits a hearing in the Senate later this year. The stakes have only risen, with search engine giant Google recently announcing it was beginning to restrict the availability of California news on its platform in protest of the legislation, raising some thorny legal questions of censorship purely for economic reasons.

The information age has produced a consolidation of economic power that rivals that of the industrial age generations ago. It took years to break up those monopolies. And that exercise was straightforward compared to reforming the algorithms of search engines or social media companies to protect the public.

Sometimes it makes sense for California to be a leader on a national policy challenge, even if it’s hard. This is one of them.

Tom Philp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist who returned to The Sacramento Bee in 2023 after working in government for 16 years. Philp had previously written for The Bee from 1991 to 2007. He is a native Californian and a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.