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Hochul urges lawmakers to approve youth mental health bills

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(The Center Square) — New York Gov. Kathy Hochul Is urging lawmakers to pass a package of bills to tackle the state’s youth mental health crisis before they break for summer recess.

The “Stop Addictive Feeds Exploration for Kids” or “SAFE” Act calls for restricting social media’s addictive features. It would require social media platforms to create a chronological feed instead of an algorithm-based feed for younger users under 18 and block access and notifications between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Another bill, the “New York Child Data Protection Act,” would prohibit online sites from collecting, using or sharing personal data of individuals under the age of 18 without their parents’ consent.

Hochul said social media is using algorithms that cause troubling mental health issues and is calling on lawmakers to approve both proposals before they recess for the summer.

“These are ruled by addictive algorithms designed to draw the young people deeper and deeper into that darkness over and over,” Hochul, a Democrat, said in remarks on Wednesday. “These addictive feeds govern the content that social media feeds up to them but have also now taken over their well-being. It has gone too far.”

Hochul touted $1 billion in new spending for mental health treatment in the recently approved state budget, including $20 million for mental health clinics in public schools. But she said approval of the “nation leading” youth mental health bills is a priority and called for their passage “before the Legislature goes home.”

“If we as elected adults don’t heed the damning data and the cries for help that are coming from across our state and take action, then we have failed in our most instinctive duty: that is to protect children,” Hochul said. None of us needed a poll to tell us that New Yorkers expect us to take action to protect the youngest from these addictive algorithms.

Lawmakers are also being pressured by social media watchdogs, including the conservative group Common Sense Media, which blames big tech lobbyists for slowing progress on the legislation.

“When you’ve hired a dozen lobbyists and spent well over half a million dollars opposing legislation, you expect to get your money’s worth,” Danny Weiss, the group’s chief advocacy officer, said in a statement. “But ordinary tax paying parents and teachers have expectations too — that their lawmakers protect their children online.”

Muna Heaven, interim executive director of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said, “Legislative intervention is critical to keeping minors safe online, and holding technology companies accountable for the digital exploitation of society’s most vulnerable – our children.”

Medical experts say lockdowns, business and school closings, and restrictions on social gatherings during the pandemic exacerbated a mental health treatment gap, increasing demand on an already stressed mental health system. In 2022, a coalition of groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, issued a warning that the youth mental health crisis is a “national emergency.”

Social media companies are increasingly being blamed for the rising rates of depression, suicidality and other mental health issues among youth nationally. In response, states and local governments are increasingly considering legislation and legal action to crack down on social media use.

Tech media executives, including Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, were recently grilled by members of Congress about children’s online safety during hearings where they accused the companies of having “blood on their hands” and for failing to protect children from being sexually exploited online.

In January, New York City Mayor Eric Adams declared social media a “public health threat” and filed a lawsuit against Facebook, Snapchat and other social media networks, blaming the big-tech companies for fueling a youth mental health crisis.

Lawmakers in Congress are lining up behind the Kids Online Safety Act, a controversial bill intended to protect kids from dangerous content online. However, despite bipartisan support for the restrictions, the measure has failed to gain traction.

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