New York governor to launch bill banning smartphones in schools

<span>Kathy Hochul in Niagara Falls, New York, on 22 November 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Lindsay Dedario/Reuters</span>
Kathy Hochul in Niagara Falls, New York, on 22 November 2023.Photograph: Lindsay Dedario/Reuters

The New York governor, Kathy Hochul, plans to introduce a bill banning smartphones in schools, the latest in a series of legislative moves aimed at online child safety by New York’s top official.

“I have seen these addictive algorithms pull in young people, literally capture them and make them prisoners in a space where they are cut off from human connection, social interaction and normal classroom activity,” she said.

Hochul said she would launch the bill later this year and take it up in New York’s next legislative session, which begins in January 2025. If passed, schoolchildren will be allowed to carry simple phones that cannot access the internet but do have the capability to send texts, which has been a sticking point for parents. She did not offer specifics on enforcing the prohibition.

“Parents are very anxious about mass shootings in school,” she said. “Parents want the ability to have some form of connection in an emergency situation.”

Related: What happens when a school bans smartphones? A complete transformation

The smartphone-ban bill will follow two others Hochul is pushing that outline measures to safeguard children’s privacy online and limit their access to certain features of social networks.

The Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (Safe) for Kids act addresses algorithmic feeds. It would require social media platforms to provide minors with a default chronological feed composed of accounts they have chosen to follow rather than algorithmically suggested ones. The bill would also mandate that parents have more wide-reaching controls like the ability to block access to night-time notifications.

If the bill passes, companies that breach the regulations would face fines of $5,000 per violation, and parents could sue for damages.

“This legislation will protect children and serve as an example for other states and countries to follow,” said Letitia James, the New York attorney general, who is a co-sponsor along with the Democratic state senator Andrew Gounardes. “Together with our partners, we are going to do everything possible to see these bills passed into law.”

The second bill, the New York Child Data Protection act, aims to restrict the collection of children’s personal data by online sites that have knowledge of a user’s age. The bill would not require companies to implement age-verification processes such as facial recognition or the uploading of identification documents.

In New York, the bills have faced pushback from big tech, trade groups and other companies, which collectively spent more than $800,000 between October and March lobbying against one or both of them, according to public disclosure records.

Meta is the largest of these, spending on lobbying $156,932 in New York in that time. The bills would require the social media giant to alter its platforms for very young users.

“They should know that as someone who is often subjected to millions of dollars of lobbying campaigns, it has no effect on me. So they’re wasting their money,” Hochul said, adding that New York is a “pro-tech state”.

“You’re not going to profit off the mental health of children in the state of New York,” she said.

The two New York bills would increase the government’s role in regulating social media platforms. This differs from other state-level bills across the country, which place some reliance on self-policing by tech companies to decide which features could be harmful by completing assessments of whether products are “reasonably likely” to be accessed by children.

“These addictive algorithms have been used against young people since 2011,” Hochul said. “If [social media companies] were going to self-police and manage this themselves, what has stopped them thus far? Clearly as a government, we need to step in.”

Meta has pushed back on the legislation. A statement from the company read: “As we continue working with New York lawmakers, it’s crucial that we avoid quick fixes and, instead, support legislation that actually empowers parents and supports teens online.”

In the absence of federal action to protect children online, other states across the country are working to pass legislation similar to the bills proposed in New York.

Related: Battle lines drawn as US states take on big tech with online child safety bills

Maryland and Vermont passed their “Kids Code” bills earlier this year over staunch opposition from social media companies. Other states that have introduced similar online-safety bills include Minnesota, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, South Carolina and Nevada. They follow California’s attempts to introduce the similar Age-Appropriate Design Code act, which was blocked by a federal judge.

In its criticism of online child safety bills in other states, Meta has highlighted its development of child-safety tools, which focus on parents managing their children’s online experience on their platforms. The company did not issue a statement on the New York bills.

The parental tools have not achieved widespread adoption, however.

“Meta itself admits its own parental controls aren’t widely used – they’re often confusing and frequently fail to work as intended,” said Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, a policy advocacy organization.

The major social media firms have faced increasing scrutiny over harms against children, including sextortion scams, grooming by predators and worsening mental health.

Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was told he had “blood on his hands” at a January US Senate hearing on digital sexual exploitation. Zuckerberg stood up and apologized to a group of assembled parents whose children had died by suicide after being targeted on social media.

In December, the New Mexico attorney general’s office filed a lawsuit against Meta for allegedly allowing its platforms to become a marketplace for child predators. The suit cited a 2023 Guardian investigation that revealed how child traffickers were using Meta platforms, including Instagram, to buy and sell children into sexual exploitation.