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Capitol Recap: Can Vermont lawmakers rein in Big Tech to protect kids?

A collage shows an open laptop with internet tabs open. In front of the tabs on screen is a transparent image of the vermont statehouse. The computer is surrounded by app logos including Instagram, Facebook, X, TikTok, and YouTube. In the foreground, children's hands hold smartphones.
Photo illustration by Zoe McDonald
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Vermont Public, iStock
Though the U.S. Surgeon General warned last year that social media applications like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat pose a “profound” risk to the mental health of children, federal lawmakers have yet to enact any substantive legislation targeted at the platforms.

An internet-safety bill that some lawmakers are characterizing as the “strongest” piece of youth mental health legislation in Montpelier this year faces an almost certain legal challenge from the big technology companies it seeks to regulate.

More than 50% of Vermont middle schoolers spend at least three hours a day on their screens, and much of that time is devoted to social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.

Though the U.S. Surgeon General warned last year that those social media applications pose a “profound” risk to the mental health of children, federal lawmakers have yet to enact any substantive legislation targeted at the platforms. And some Vermont lawmakers say it’s time for the state to take matters into its own hands.

“For kids in particular, we’re trying to make sure there’s some safeguards in place,” said Bradford Rep. Monique Priestley.

A review of 36 studies by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services last year found “ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

The bill would change the rules of the road for Big Tech in Vermont.

Casey Mock is the chief policy officer at the Center for Humane Technology, a national nonprofit founded by technologists who were concerned about design practices in the industry. The organization, which helped spearhead similar legislation in California, is working with lawmakers in Vermont on a bill that would block companies from using “addictive” features that Mock said are designed to hook young brains.

A man stands in front of grey stone steps and columns.
Pete Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Casey Mock is the chief policy officer at the Center for Humane Technology, a national nonprofit that helped spearhead similar legislation in California.

Mock said the U.S. has a long history of enacting government-mandated safety standards that are meant to minimize harm to consumers. He said Vermont needs similar standards for technology.

“We have a building code … that requires fire escapes, smoke detectors, things like that. It’s up to the architect … however they want the building to look, what form it’s going to take and what function it’s going to have, so long as it has these sorts of elements.” he said. “So our approach to this legislation in general and policy in general takes that same approach.”

The bill would require social media platforms to default to the highest privacy settings for young users. It would prevent strangers from sending direct messages to children. It would bar companies from selling kids' personal information. And perhaps it would require tech companies to stop using features that it has reason to believe will inflict harm on young users.

“Social media creates this overwhelming pressure to … demonstrate yourself. And it makes you feel like you’re not enough. And it creates a lot of unrealistic expectations to live up to, especially for girls, I think, but everyone.”
Juniper Galvani, student at Mount Mansfield Union High School

Chittenden County Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, a Democrat, said parents should have assurance that the products their kids engage with online are safe.

“This is a youth mental health bill, probably the strongest one we’ll be able to get through the Legislature this year, because all of our children are on these platforms and are being sucked onto the algorithms and further isolated,” she said.

If Vermont enacts the legislation, it will likely face the same legal challenge that California saw after it enacted a similar law in 2022. That’s according to Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, a trade association that receives its funding from tech companies including Meta, Amazon and Google.

“If Vermont enacts this law, it will be blocked, it will be stopped, and it will protect absolutely zero children,” Szabo said. “It is a waste of taxpayers’ money to fight it in court.”

Szabo said the legislation violates free speech rights protected by the First Amendment.

“What it would do is it bans speech. It bans the way you organize content. It bans what stories get promoted and what stories don’t get promoted,” he said. “And when the government comes in and starts banning speech, it gets held to the highest standard possible, and rightly so. And it must be crystal clear as to what speech is allowed, what speech is disallowed, and to whom it applies.”

Szabo said the Vermont law fails to provide that clarity.

Camille Carlton, also with the Center for Humane Technology, said the free speech argument is spurious.

“Nowhere in the bill do we talk about banning speech or content at all,” she said. “The bill is targeted at privacy features and design features and that is it.”

Attorneys general in 20 states have filed amicus briefs in the California case urging the court to uphold the law.

Szabo said the key to internet safety lies in the hands of children, and the parents raising them.

“At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of individuals to decide how much, if, when and where they use social media,” he said. “And more importantly it is the role of parents like myself to decide how much and how often and even if my kids are allowed on social media.”

But some young people say social media’s grip on children is too tight to escape.

Juniper Galvani, a 17-year-old junior at Mount Mansfield Union High School, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday that she and her peers are keenly aware that social media is having a corrosive effect on their sleep patterns and happiness and general well-being.

A girl sits in a black leather seat at the end of a wooden table. She has a laptop open in front of her and is speaking. A woman listens in the background.
Pete Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Juniper Galvani, a 17-year-old from Montpelier, said in a testimony at the Statehouse that social media has had a negative effect on her and her peers' mental health and emotional well-being.

She said push notifications, endless scrolling and other addictive features on social media are just too compelling for the teenage brain to resist.

“Social media creates this overwhelming pressure to … demonstrate yourself,” she said. “And it makes you feel like you’re not enough. And it creates a lot of unrealistic expectations to live up to, especially for girls, I think, but everyone.”

Dr. Heidi Schumacher, with the Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the public health risks posed by social media are real.

“I can’t stress how strongly we feel as child health professionals for the real benefits that this bill can have in really protecting the health and well-being of Vermont’s kids and adolescents,” Schumacher told lawmakers.

A 2023 report by the Harvard School of Public Health found that Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly Twitter) generated $11 billion in ad revenue in 2022 alone from users under the age of 18. Schumacher said it’s become clear that technology companies have willfully designed those platforms in ways that hook kids so they can maximize profits.

“Vermont’s kids deserve better,” she said.

The U.S. Senate appears to have secured the votes needed to pass a Kids Online Safety Act that would require tech companies to ensure their products don’t endanger young users. The legislation faces a more difficult path in the U.S. House, however. And Casey Mock, with the Center for Humane Technology, said lawmakers in Vermont shouldn’t wait on action from Congress.

“I believe Mark Zuckerberg has been dragged in front of Congress nine times now, and we still have nothing coming out of D.C. Unfortunately the tech lobby is just too strong in D.C.,” he said.

Sen. Peter Welch said in a written statement that, “The fact of the matter is that Congress has failed to rein in Big Tech.”

Vermont is one of six states considering internet-safety legislation this year.

Attorney General Charity Clark, who filed a lawsuit against Meta last year, said she’ll be working with lawmakers to make the bill as legally unassailable as possible. If the Legislature enacts the bill into law, and it does face a challenge, she said she’s prepared to defend the state in court.

“I feel it’s really important that we do what we can to protect children,” Clark said. “And if that involves, down the road I have to defend a lawsuit, I am happy to do it, because it’s worth it. This is the future of Vermont.”

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The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.