Nobody wants their children to be exposed to hate speech and bullying online. But by prohibiting the use of algorithms to sort content on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and more, California’s SB 976 could make feeds worse.Instead of giving teenagers a healthier online experience, SB 976 would hinder platforms from ensuring age-appropriate feeds for teens. 

With chronological curation, whoever posts most recently goes to the top of a teen’s feed, which means the loudest voices are given the most prominence – even if that voice is promoting bullying, hate speech, or other harmful content

SB 976’s consequences also extend beyond teens – by mandating age verification for ALL users, the bill could ultimately require personal information be collected, putting your data at risk. 

In seeking to help teenagers, the bills’ requirements could end up harming at-risk teens, all while invading the privacy of adult users through mandated age verification.  


Mandates Chronological Feeds, Which Are Not the Answer

The bills require platforms to offer purely chronological feeds by the default — but numerous studies and commentators have found that chronological feeds are worse.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed an internal Facebook test of chronological-only feeds, finding that:

“Meaningful Social Interactions — the back and forth comments between friends […] — dropped by 20%.

Users “hid 50% more posts, indicating they weren’t thrilled with what they were seeing.

People spent more time scrolling through the News Feed searching for interesting stuff, and saw more advertisements as they went” – increasing Facebook’s ad revenue

Users “saw double the amount of posts from public pages they don’t follow, often because friends commented on those pages.”

In a separate study of Facebook, “users served the reverse chronological feed…encountered more political and untrustworthy content on Facebook and Instagram than users with the standard feed.” – specifically a 68% increase in ‘untrustworthy’ content.

TechDirt commented that “this leaked research pokes a pretty big hole in the idea that getting rid of algorithmic recommendations does anything particularly useful.”

Platformer’s Casey Newton concluded, “I’ve seen no evidence that forcing a return to chronological feeds would address any policy aim in particular. In short, it feels like vibes-based regulation.”

And academic researchers have found that algorithmically-curated feeds “help consumers experience better content.”

Could Promote Toxic Posts Over Healthy Content

If a teen shows interest in healthy content – like journalism, sports figures, or book trends – online platforms can be a place to nurture that spark and build community with peers who share the same interest. But California’s SB 976 would prohibit online platforms from showing teens a feed with relevant content by default

This bill would punish young people searching for better online experiences. For example, teenagers interested in applying to college might visit university pages or an SAT prep group. Not only would this bill’s ban on algorithms prevent them from seeing tailored content based on their interactions, but it would also make it harder for platforms to keep toxic content like self-harm and eating disorder content out of their feeds.

Algorithmically curated feeds can protect users from harassment and cyberbullying. Unfortunately, California’s SB 976 could require platforms to display cyberbullying from classmates in a reverse chronological feed.

Content curation allows platforms to downrank and sometimes remove unwanted interactions like coordinated racial or gender-based harassment. Instead of ensuring the internet is a positive place where young people can thrive, the bill would strip platforms of their ability to protect users altogether.

Could Hurt Teens Who Rely on Curated Feeds to Keep Their Online Experience Positive

Recent research from Common Sense Media shows that teenagers overwhelming value algorithmically-curated feeds in their social media services:

67% of teenagers said that, over the last year, they had attempted to “curate their feed” by liking or spending more time on certain content to see more of what interests them.

LGBTQ+ young people were significantly more likely to curate their feeds to improve their experience. 89% of LGBTQ+ youth social media users said that, over the past year, they have tried to avoid content they don’t like on these platforms, compared to just under three-fourths of non-LGBTQ+ social media users (74%).

LGBTQ+ youth were also significantly more likely (78%) to have tried to tailor their feed to better align with their interests vs. non-LGBTQ+ youth (65%).

90% of teenagers with moderate to severe depressive symptoms had tried to see less of what they do not like on social media versus 67% of those with no symptoms.

81% of youth with moderate to severe depressive symptoms had taken action to try to curate their social media feed, compared to 55% of those with no symptoms.

All of these examples of curation – which a large majority of teenagers told Common Sense Media they rely on for healthier feeds – would be banned by SB 976.

Could Threaten a Refuge For At-Risk Teens

SB 976 includes provisions that make teens’ access to online resources contingent on parental consent. For many teens – including those from abusive families and LGBTQ+ teens with unsupportive parents – online communities are a refuge.

Under the bill, online services couldn’t help a teenager interested in coming-out-guides, bullying prevention, or dealing with family abuse – unless their parents okay it.

Writing in the New York Daily News, representatives from the Brooklyn Community Pride Center and New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) warned of this risk and the dangers that come with creating barriers to accessing critical — and sometimes life-saving — information.

“The wrong kind of legislation would not only stop these kids from exploring resources anonymously, but in some cases require their parents’ permission to visit supportive websites or find community online — forcing kids to come out to their parents, who might disapprove or bar access entirely.”

—Hildalyn Colon Hernandez and Omari Scott, New York Daily News, 12/03/23

Could Prevent Age-Appropriate Design of Online Services

Online services are working hard to design age-appropriate services for teenagers, particularly younger teens. Online platforms use algorithms to provide a different experience for a thirteen-year-old than the experience they provide for a seventeen-year-old. Just like movie ratings restrict access to films depending on the age of a minor, algorithms tailor content by age.

California’s SB 976 would bar technology platforms from curating social media feeds by default, forbidding services from tailoring content to younger teens based on age inference.

For example:

Instagram announced that it would be stricter about what types of content it recommends to 13 to 18-year-olds.

In 2021, Instagram started steering teens who are searching for disordered eating topics toward helpful support resources.

Snapchat algorithmically highlights resources, including hotlines for help, if teenagers encounter sexual risks, like catfishing or financial extortion.

This bill would likely break these tools, which rely on algorithms to sift through posts and downrank harmful content.

Endangers Privacy by Putting Personal Data at Risk

California’s toxic feeds bill would require online platforms verify and identify the age of their users, a requirement that forces users to turn over personal information.

In order to detect any users who are minors, platforms will need to identify the age of ALL users – a massive encroachment on individual privacy.

For security reasons, many adults reasonably prefer not to share identifying information with online services – creating a dilemma for anyone online: turn over sensitive personal data or leave the online platforms where they connect with friends and family.

Could Unconstitutionally Restrict Access to Content

SB 976 infringes the First Amendment by targeting minors’ access to protected speech and encroaching upon the editorial freedoms of online platforms.

Age verification mandates compromise privacy and violate the First Amendment. Echoing the Supreme Court’s decision in Reno v. ACLU, courts have consistently ruled these mandates unconstitutional, as they indiscriminately limit access to protected speech for both adults and minors.

Moreover, the courts have consistently rejected the notion that laws like New York’s don’t affect speech. Recent cases in Arkansas, California, and Ohio demonstrate that laws targeting “social media design” inherently dictate content regulation, showing how attempts to control the mechanics of speech indirectly limit the speech itself.

In her analysis of the legislation, Chamber of Progress Senior Counsel Jess Miers unpacks these legal issues and concludes “the bill’s provisions not only challenge the essence of innovation but also raise significant constitutional questions, setting the stage for yet another legal battle that could render it obsolete.”