Utah became the first state to pass legislation seeking to limit teenagers' access to social media sites last week. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox said he signed the two bills in order to protect the state’s youth from the harmful effects of the platforms.
The move coincides with an alarming rise in mental health issues among American adolescents.
“There is a wealth of research that links social media to overall well-being, anxiety, depression, body image and self-esteem, self-harm, and suicidality, though there is still work to be done to determine causality and refine our understanding of who is most at risk and what types of use or content are most harmful,” Kris Perry, executive director of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, told Yahoo News in an email.
Yahoo News spoke with Perry and a legal expert for answers to some frequently asked questions surrounding the Utah legislation.
What are the new laws, and when will they take effect?
Two laws, SB 152 and HB 311, collectively make up the Social Media Regulation Act. They will go into effect on March 1, 2024.
What do the laws say?
SB 152: Social media companies will have to verify the ages of all their Utah users and will not be permitted to collect children’s data or target them for advertising.
Users under age 18 will be required to get a parent or guardian’s permission to sign up for an account. Minors who want to bypass the digital curfew to access their account between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. will have to obtain a parent or guardian’s permission.
The parent or guardian would also have access to the minor’s account and private messaging.
HB 311: Social media companies will be required to make sure that their products do not have design features that they know will cause adolescents to become addicted to their platform.
The law also gives Utah minors the right to sue a social media company if they believe they have been harmed by the platform.
If a parent controls the social media account, doesn’t this violate a person’s right to free speech?
Yes, on many levels, according to Ari Cohn, a free speech lawyer for TechFreedom.
Reason 1: “It violates the First Amendment rights of minors, by requiring social media platforms to obtain parental consent before anyone under the age of 18 is allowed to have an account,” Cohn explained in an email to Yahoo News. “The Supreme Court has been clear that government regulation of access to social media — the place [where] our everyday expression is increasingly taking place — implicates First Amendment rights.”
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s ban on the sale of violent video games in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The late Justice Antonin Scalia foreshadowed this type of law, saying that it would be unconstitutional for a law requiring parental consent before a minor could hear or say anything. “That is the precise situation Utah finds itself in now,” Cohn explained.
Reason 2: “By requiring social media platforms to age-verify all of their users, it infringes on every adult’s First Amendment right to read and speak anonymously. The courts have struck down previous government attempts to effectively force websites to age-verify users — holding that age verification would chill First Amendment rights because users would be deterred from accessing sensitive material if they could not do so anonymously,” Cohn said. Furthermore, Utah’s law would also impose age verification for speaking on the platform, a clear violation of the First Amendment, according to Cohn.
Reason 3: Cohn says the broad language in HB311 poses an issue under the First Amendment. Under the legislation, minors can sue social media platforms for harm, which may include any “minor’s negative reaction to any speech on the platform — while presuming causation and establishing a $2,500 statutory minimum damages award regardless of the ‘harm.’”
Cohn points out that “the First Amendment does not permit the state to punish — including by imposing civil liability — speech simply because a listener or reader had a negative emotional reaction to it.”
If these laws survive any legal challenges regarding the First Amendment, how would these laws be enforced, anyway?
In an interview Sunday with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cox acknowledged that the laws aren’t “foolproof.”
“We don’t expect that we’re going to be able to prevent every young person from getting around this,” he told the host, Chuck Todd. “But we are working with social media companies … over the course of the year, we will be going through a rule-making process to figure out what that’s going to look like."
Would enforcement of the laws create any unintended issues?
While these laws could have benefits for children and families, they aren’t free from potentially negative impacts in more nuanced situations, Perry told Yahoo News.
“Guaranteeing parents' access to their children's social media accounts, including private messages, could limit high-risk youth's ability to seek out essential information otherwise unavailable to them or reach out for help in times of crisis,” Perry wrote.
Cohn expanded on those situations saying, “I think of the minors in abusive homes, whose parents would not want them accessing a place where they could speak out about it. Or LGBTQ minors searching for community because they are being raised in a strict religious household. And minors whose parents work multiple jobs and simply don’t have the time and capacity to provide consent.”
Could laws like these be coming to my state?
Indeed, they could.
If you’re in a red state like Arkansas, Texas, Ohio or Louisiana, or in a blue state like New Jersey, keep an eye out for proposals similar to Utah’s laws.
If you’re in California, a law goes into effect July 1, 2024, that increases privacy protections for children online.
But the bottom line is that these laws shouldn’t be a substitute for important communication between parents and children or general education about online safety, Perry noted.
“We hope that children’s well-being and healthy development are front and center as lawmakers grapple with how to hold social media companies accountable for the products they market,” Perry pointed out. “Balancing the voices of states, parents and children is a critical part of shaping the best policy solutions.”