Content warning: This article contains mention of disordered eating.
Members of the North Carolina Young People’s Alliance, a student-run advocacy organization, held a press conference alongside state legislators on Wednesday morning to introduce a bill aimed at tackling social media addiction among adolescents.
If passed, the bipartisan legislation, N.C. House Bill 644, would protect minors' privacy by stopping social media companies from using their data to create personalized content through algorithms.
Sam Hiner, a UNC sophomore and executive director of the NCYPA, said this bill would ensure that children are not exposed to curated posts.
“You’ll still see your friends’ content and generally popular posts, but you won’t have this addictive feed of targeted content that keeps us locked into apps for hours on end,” he said.
Hiner said the NCYPA decided to address this issue as dependency on social media can lead to negative health outcomes and political extremism. Students have been advocating for support for this bill since last December.
“We were careful in our approach that we were proposing something that wasn't going to have any adverse side effects,” he said.
The press conference was held at 9 a.m. at the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh. N.C. Rep. Jeff McNeely (R-Iredell), N.C. Sen. Bobby Hanig (R-Bertie, Camden, Currituck, Gates, Halifax, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Tyrrell, Warren) and mental health professionals were present to support the bill.
Stephanie Zerwas, former clinical director at the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, spoke about how social media algorithms can expose children to harmful posts.
“They might spend one extra second looking for a bikini for spring break, and all of a sudden their social media content is filled with information about risky diets,” she said.
Hiner said the ability for social media companies to obtain users’ data allows them to create feeds that alter young people’s perceptions of themselves and the world.
Ava Smithing, a student at Stevens Institute of Technology and responsible technology activist, shared her personal experience with social media at the press conference. She said interacting with ads of runway models on Pinterest caused her to develop an eating disorder at 12 years old.
“My inclination to engage with these harsh body standards and spend time scrolling through them was the same as asking the algorithm for more – but I didn’t know that,” she said. “When I started seeing 'thinspo' or 'thinspiration' posts, that’s what I thought I was supposed to be seeing.”
Smithing noted that even after 10 years, her Pinterest feed still shows these harmful posts, highlighting the dangerous cycle of social media.
“We can’t let algorithms decide what is good for kids because kids don’t even know what is good for themselves, and their first instincts fuel their algorithms for the rest of their time online,” she said.
After students and advocates of the bill gave their personal statements at the conference, plans were shared of what will occur in the coming weeks.
Hiner said the bill will be proposed to the judiciary committee next Wednesday and the N.C. House will decide if the bill will be passed to the Senate by May 4.
Despite thinking that the bill would only get 30 co-sponsors, Hiner said the bill received over 60 co-sponsors after the conference.
“I think we’re in a good spot to push this all the way to passage, so that is going to be our number-one priority,” he said.
Zerwas said this bill would give people the opportunity to fight against social media companies.
“At a time where we are all facing things that are completely out of our control, this is something we can control,” she said. “We can prevent the damage that technology giants are inflicting on our youth for their own gain.”
Hiner said he hopes the support this proposal is receiving from politicians will encourage others to take action.
“The number one thing I say to young people is, 'Get involved',” he said. “It's going to take multiple times, and be ready to fail a lot — but don't let that discourage you.”
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