Should parents get to control whether teens use social media? It’s already law in one state
After Utah became the first state to require parental consent in order for minors to use social media, parents, teens and experts are sharing their thoughts on government-enforced mandates for social media use.
On March 23, Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed H.B. 311 and S.B. 152 into law, requiring all social media companies to verify the age of any Utah resident who uses social media and mandates parental consent be obtained if the user is a minor.
The laws also force social media companies to give parents access their child’s account, with or without their child's permission, establishes a curfew that locks minors out of their social media accounts between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. (unless a parent decides otherwise), and prohibits social media companies from collecting information from and displaying ads to minors.
At least five additional states have proposed similar bills. Congress is also considering federal proposals around an age threshold in addition to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which already bans children under the age of 13 from using social media without parental consent.
'More than anything, it's a parenting issue'
Utah mom Alysse Mengason, 54, tells TODAY.com she thinks the state mandates are "a bit intrusive."
"My husband and I can make those types of decisions," Mengason, who has a 17-year-old daughter named Hayden, says. "It's up to us to teach Hayden right from wrong, and definitely social media is one of those teaching moments. The thought of the state government trying to control this doesn't make sense to me — more than anything, it's a parenting issue and a teaching matter."
Mengason first allowed Hayden to use one social media app when she was 13, then gradually allowed her daughter to start using more apps as she grew older.
"I had access to her Snapchat and her TikTok and said: 'OK, once a week, show us what you're doing there,'" Mengason says. "She understood that if there was anything that was confusing or upsetting, she could show us."
Sarah Houston Katsanis, a research assistant professor focusing on pediatric consent and social media at Northwestern University, says the mandates are "quite extreme," adding that "teenagers will find ways to access what they are interested in, especially if it's touted as something forbidden."
"I don't disagree that social media is a problem and tech addiction is a problem among teenagers and among children," Houston Katsanis tells TODAY.com. "Rather than trying to restrict what children have access to, let's work with communities to limit the need for phones."
Numerous studies have found links between an increase in social media use and adverse mental health outcomes in teens, including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
"We know that social media has negative effects on depression, that it's associated with greater rates of eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, and lower life satisfaction, " Dr. Andrea Vazzana, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health, tells TODAY.com.
"There can also can be some benefits of social media use when used in small amounts — it can be a safe haven for people in the LGBTQ+ community, especially for those who might be alienated," Vazanna adds. "Worldwide, teens can find their niche of people, and especially during adolescence when developing an identity and developing a sense of who you are, that's so important."
Mengason acknowledges the potential impact social media can have on teens' mental health, adding that there have been times when her daughter has been negatively affected.
"There's been a gathering or a party where someone wasn't invited but pictures were posted," Mengason says. "But if there were situations where something was bringing her down, she would show me, we'd talk through it and it was a teaching lesson."
'I really like that there's some measure of accountability for social media companies'
Danielle Mcguire, 48, tells TODAY.com she's "aligned with Gov. Cox" on the new social media laws.
"There's some things I disagree with, but I think it's headed in the right direction," Mcguire, a mom of two living in Utah, says. "I don't think the bills are going to force any parents to get involved in a way that they're not already, but I do really like that there is some measure of accountability for social media companies."
In Utah, social media companies have until March 1, 2024 to comply with the new mandates. Companies that fail to do so can face potential civil and criminal penalties.
Mcguire says navigating the positives and negatives of social media use for her 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter has been "one of the biggest struggles as a parent," starting the moment her children's peers started getting phones and her kids started to feel as though they were "missing out."
"I talk to my kids a lot about how they're being used by social media companies — that they're the product and that their attention is what they're selling. I get eye rolls and stuff like that, but that's the reality," she says. "My older child, she knows when she's been online for too long — she doesn't feel good. So she tries to dial it back, but it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle."
Mcguire says she believes "we're going look at social media companies in the same way we now look at Big Tobacco — as creating a product that they know is addictive and designed to be harmful."
"They have virtual impunity for the things that are allowed to happen on their platforms," she adds. "Teens spend seven hours a day, on average, on their phones — that's by design."
In a statement to NBC News, a Meta spokesperson said the company wants "teens to be safe online."
"We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences," a spokesperson said. "We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks, adding that the company will "continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues.”
'Parents need to be doing a better job'
Vazzan says she believes laws, like the two passed in Utah, are a sign that “parents need to be doing a better job” of being involved in their children's social media use.
"Why is the government stepping in and having to put in these restrictions that really parents should be empowered to do?" Vazzan says. "If parents are present during their kids' social media use, it allows for conversations about things that might be confusing for the child or they can observe if their child is viewing inappropriate content."
Mcguire agrees, adding that parents need a community of other parents willing to monitor their children's online interactions and discuss any issues as a collective.
"Sometimes, when something goes wrong, I'll call another parent and say: 'Hey, have you seen what the kids are posting online?' And they have no idea, because they're not paying attention," Mcguire says. "I hope that parents will use this bill as an opportunity to learn more and get more involved in their kids phone time."
Emma Woodward, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, tells TODAY.com children should use social media "in a collaborative way" with their parents, adding that she doesn't believe mandated parental consent works.
"Being forced to include parents in social media might leave kids and teens less willing to have their parents involved," Woodward says. "The truth is, we want it to be a collaborative process."
Woodward says parents can start by discussing social media use with their children well before they go online, adding that it's important for parents to help kids "understand that people are posting the best parts of their life" and to establish "setting some expectations about acceptable and unacceptable online behavior."
"It's important for parents to help teens put up guardrails for any online activity," Woodward adds, "because kids and teens don't have the executive functioning and decision-making skills of adults to be able to weigh these risks and benefits of posting things online."
Hayden Mengason, 17, tells TODAY.com she uses social media every day, adding that it allows her to stay up-to-date on current events and connected to friends who live out-of-state.
The high schooler, who moved to Utah with her mom and dad four years ago, says she thinks mandating parental consent is "unnecessary," adding that kids easily work around parental consent laws by simply “shifting the age box” when creating an online account.
“You notice growing up with social media, kids who don’t have access are like the kids with parents who don’t give them candy at home — when they come to your house, they’re obsessed with it,” Hayden tells TODAY.com. “I think parents who don’t let their kids have it are putting them at a disadvantage.”
The 17-year-old says she's also thinking about some of her peers who don't live with supportive parents, including one friend in particular who she says has a parent who "would probably not say yes to her having social media."
"She wouldn't have that support," she adds, "but she has a lot of friends online."
This article was originally published on TODAY.com