Social media restrictions proposed for Pa. minors, lawmakers cite mental health concerns

Sep. 21—HARRISBURG — Minors under age 16 would need parental or guardian consent to open a social media account in Pennsylvania under the terms of a bipartisan bill being considered in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 22 would task social media companies to verify a minor's age through varied "commercially available best practices" including by phone, email or using a standardized form created by the Office of Attorney General.

The bill would also largely limit social media companies from mining data of users under the age of 18 who use their respective platforms and ban companies from selling their personal information or profiting from it.

The Attorney General would have exclusive jurisdiction to pursue violations including fines, damages and attorneys' fees. Fines for an offense involving a single minor range from $2,500 to $50,000, as proposed. For groups of minors, fines wouldn't exceed $5 million.

Arkansas, Louisiana and Utah each enacted similar laws controlling access to social media for minors, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania is among 35 states and Puerto Rico considering bills legislating terms for minors' use of social media, the organization found.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia, and Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, circulated a co-sponsorship memo in May and introduced the bill in June.

They cited concerns for the impact of social media on the mental health of teenagers including an advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General in May encouraging policymakers to strengthen online safety standards and encouraging the tech industry to be more transparent and proactive in prioritizing the safety and health of users, especially minors.

Opposition to the bill, however, was expressed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Their concerns included potential violations of the First Amendment rights of young persons, the invitation of parental surveillance that could disrupt attempts to seek help in unhealthy parent-child relationships and might unintentionally lead to more data mining through the verification process. The organization also raised issues with the enforceability of the measure.

A 2022 survey by Pew Research Center found teens were more likely to say social media had a negative impact on others than themselves, with the largest share having a neutral opinion on the impact. They were more likely to report positive experiences from using social media, however, half of those surveyed said criminal charges or permanent platform bans would help reduce harassment and bullying.

The lawmakers referred to a 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that 16% of high school students reported being bullied online.

In that same study, almost 60% of female students surveyed between 2011 and 2021 "experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness while 10% of female students reported attempting suicide." The study showed the same perspective of sadness among 70% of LGBTQ+ students and within that group, nearly 20% reported suicide attempts. The data on sadness and hopelessness wasn't exclusive to results from online experiences.

Extensive amendments to the original bill language were made after "months of negotiations" with social media companies, other tech industry firms and the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Phillips-Hill said.

Among the changes was a shift away from private right of action allowing citizens to sue social media companies accused of violating the proposed law to tasking the Attorney General exclusively to enforce it.

"The use of social media by teenagers is virtually universal. At the same time, we're facing a mental health crisis unlike anything we've seen before," Phillips-Hill said at a meeting of the Senate Communications & Technology Committee this week.

The bill has a long way to go before becoming law. The amendment was approved by a unanimous 11-0 vote. That same margin carried the bill through the committee, allowing further consideration by the full upper chamber. Should it pass the Senate, it would need the approval of the state House before going to the governor for a signature.