Skinner Introduces Bill to Hold Social Media Companies Accountable for the Sale of Fentanyl & Ghost Guns, and Promoting Harm to Kids

February 2, 2023

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, today introduced SB 287, which is designed to hold social media platforms accountable for promoting the illegal sale of fentanyl to California youth and for the sale of unlawful firearms, including ghost guns. The protections in SB 287 would also hold these platforms accountable for targeting other harmful content toward youth that could result in suicide, eating disorders, dangerous dieting practices, or inflicting harm on themselves or others.

“Research demonstrates that social media companies’ algorithms direct their users to specific content, including to content that promotes extremely dangerous and harmful practices. Children are particularly vulnerable to becoming addicted to these platforms and are being targeted with content that facilitates the sale of deadly fentanyl and promotes eating disorders, suicide, and other harmful practices. Additionally, social media sites promote the sale of illegal firearms, including ghost guns that can’t be traced. It’s time for California to hold social media companies accountable,” Sen. Skinner said. “SB 287 will help curb dangerous content by strengthening the legal rights that Californians have to stop social media from targeting users with harmful information via specialized algorithms, especially our kids.”

SB 287 is backed by a coalition of advocacy organizations dedicated to protecting youth online, including the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law and Common Sense Media.

“As documented over and again, a tiny handful of rich and powerful companies are knowingly and carelessly causing an unprecedented number of our children — just children! — to die by taking their own lives, by fentanyl overdoses, from choking challenges, from addiction, and causing life-altering child anguish on a scale never before seen,” said Ed Howard, Senior Counsel, Children’s Advocacy Institute, University of San Diego School of Law. “What these companies are doing knowingly or negligently just to make even more money is morally repugnant, offending every notion of human decency and it needs to stop — now.”

“We thank Senator Skinner for introducing this vital bill to protect California’s children from serious online harms,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media. “Large social media companies must be held accountable for the addictive design features they use to keep kids and teens using their products longer than is healthy for them to do so and for facilitating spaces where young people are targeted with unhealthy content and products, including fentanyl, which puts their lives at risk. This is one of the most important tech policy bills that will come before the Legislature this year.”

For years, social media companies have argued that they’re not responsible for the content their users post on their platforms. But by creating highly specialized algorithms that can bombard people with harmful and dangerous information, social media companies are no longer operating as online community bulletin boards that are agnostic about what’s uploaded to their sites.

Recently, there has been a disturbing increase of reports of youth dying after unwittingly taking fentanyl that was sold to them by people who secretly entered the youths’ conversations on Snapchat or other platforms. Similarly, arms dealers are increasingly using social media to sell ghost guns — illegal guns that can’t be traced by law enforcement and are now a major driver of gun violence. Likewise, so-called choking challenges or blackout challenges on TikTok have taken the lives of numerous children under the age of 12 around the globe. 

Social media algorithms are exacerbating these dangerous online trends because they are specifically designed to addict users by feeding them content that reinforces their preferences or curiosities in order to maximize advertising revenue. Users, in turn, can be led down dark and dangerous paths on the web. That’s especially perilous for children, considering that the average teen spends 8.4 hours a day on digital platforms.

Under SB 287, social media companies operating in California would be barred from using algorithms or other technical features that target child users and cause them to receive content that prompts them to:

  • Purchase fentanyl
  • Inflict harm on themselves or others
  • Develop an eating disorder or engage in dangerous dieting
  • Purposely take their own lives

In addition, Sen. Skinner plans to amend SB 287 to bar social media companies from using algorithms or other technical features that prompt people to buy illegal firearms, including ghost guns.

Social media companies that violate SB 287 would be subject to fines of up to $250,000 per violation and are liable to pay attorneys’ fees and court costs related to enforcing the law.

“Social media companies are no longer passive actors in the online marketplace. They’re active participants that decide what users see and what they don’t. As a result, they must be held responsible when their algorithms purposely target our children with dangerous or harmful content,” Sen. Skinner added.


Sen. Nancy Skinner represents the 9th Senate District and is chair of the Senate Budget Committee and the California Legislative Women’s Caucus.


What Others Are Saying About the Need to Hold Social Media Companies Accountable


“The average teenager spends 7.5 hours daily on digital platforms. “We have condoms for sex, cars with seat belts, yet we have no standard of safety for the place that the average American teen is spending 8 hours a day. The Digital Rights Revolution is unfolding before our eyes and the world is counting on California to lead the charge and save the next generation.”

- Larissa May, Founder, Half the Story, a supporter of SB 287


“I have struggled with mental health issues my entire life, but everything got significantly worse in my teens, which happened to be when Instagram first started gaining popularity. When I started treatment for mental health and eating disorders, I was forced to delete Instagram, and that helped immensely. I was no longer encouraged to lose weight and hurt myself every time I picked up my phone. Years have gone by and I am now doing much better and have become active on Instagram again. Recently, I have been very frustrated with advertisements that pollute my feed and stories. I am constantly seeing videos of people advocating for quick weight-loss solutions, including the popular “booty mask” and magic weight loss shakes. Being in recovery, seeing this is incredibly triggering. I have tried to use the feature on Instagram where you click on an ad and ask them to not show you ads like that, but then I just get different versions of the same things I tried to block. This is something that bothers me every day and makes it more difficult to maintain a positive, recovery-focused mindset. I hope the bill you are working on can change this because living with an eating disorder is a constant struggle, and being encouraged to lose weight by strangers on a daily basis is beyond exhausting and depressing.”

- Kara Long, college student


“The pressure of social media weighs down so many teens these days, and when social media advertises and glamorizes hurtful methods of coping, it targets the most vulnerable teens. I’ve seen the effects of this first-hand and how hard it is to get out of the social media loop that pulls you in.”

- Levi E., 15 years old


“As a mother whose son died from a choking challenge on a social media platform, I believe all social media platforms should be clearly responsible to a family if the platform knew or should have known their products are possibly lethal to children. I challenge Facebook, TikTok, Instagram and Snap to explain how any parent can ever sleep well at night knowing that some of the wealthiest corporations in history believe themselves unaccountably free forever knowingly to offer possibly lethal products to our children.”

- Judy Brogg, Santa Monica


“This bill would help so many young people like me. It would help protect kids during the never-ending battle between me, myself, and I. From school, friends, and growing up, there is already so much that young people have to worry about. This bill would help make sure that social media, something that is supposed to be a fun way to connect with our friends, is and stays safe.”

- Emi Kim, college student


“Social media can provide a valuable means of connecting young people but can also cause significant harm. It is imperative that we address the role that social media plays in contributing to specific psychiatric disorders, including eating disorders, suicidal ideation and self-harm, and substance abuse.

- Sarita Patel, MD, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Jewish Family and Children’s Services