If everything goes according to the government of Utah’s plan, around this time next year, there will be some big changes on social media platforms for the state’s residents. Especially — but not exclusively — for the younger ones. They may also, possibly, have an effect on social media users beyond Utah’s borders.
In a ceremony on Thursday, Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox signed two bills regulating minors’ use of social media, denoting how important and significant he believes these two pieces of legislation are. Combined, the new laws call for social media platforms to verify all users’ ages. Those under 18 will have special rules for their online activity, including curfews; more privacy from advertisers but less from their parents or guardians; and the ability to sue platforms over certain harms, including addiction.
The laws are the first in the country to place such restrictions on kids’ usage of social media. They likely won’t be the last, however, as other states and the federal government are increasingly considering legal restrictions in the name of protecting minors as the potential for harm those platforms pose gets more attention. But opponents of such laws say they will have unintended consequences for the free speech and privacy of people of all ages.
Both laws, which are collectively known as the Social Media Regulation Act, are set to take effect on March 1, 2024. The first, SB 152, requires social media companies to verify the age of any Utah resident with an account on their services. Those under 18 will have to get their parent or guardian’s permission to sign up for an account and to access it at all between the hours of 10:30 pm and 6:30 am, and social media companies can’t advertise to or collect data on minors. The second, HB 311, requires social media companies to ensure that they are not designed to cause minors to become addicted to them, and gives Utah’s minors the right to sue social media companies if they believe they’ve become addicted to or otherwise somehow harmed by a social media platform they have an account on.
At the signing, Cox cited studies that showed how poor mental health in young people can be caused or exacerbated by their use of social media platforms.
“I think we need to do something,” the governor said. “These are first-of-their-kind bills in the United States. That’s huge.”
There are a lot of things that can happen in the year before most of the legislation’s provisions take effect, including courts striking them down in part or entirely, as the companies or platform users affected by the laws are sure to take legal action to prevent them. The new laws also don’t totally spell out how platforms are supposed to verify users’ ages, as those details will be hammered out in consultation with the companies affected. But it’s pretty clear that they’ll go much further than the easily bypassable age verification services social media platforms currently use to comply with COPPA, the federal children’s privacy law, which depends on underage users telling the truth about their age.
This is a problem for privacy advocates, who point out that identity verification rules take away consumers’ rights to use these services anonymously, while companies get to collect even more of their data than before. And that goes for users of all ages, as the only way to prove you aren’t a child subject to these rules is to verify that you’re an adult. The provisions allowing parents to see everything their child posts and messages are a clear privacy issue as well. The laws are also a problem for free speech advocates, who believe the lack of anonymity will suppress everyone’s speech. That may include children in abusive situations or LGBTQ children who could be harmed if their parents snooped on their online activities.
“These bills radically undermine the constitutional and human rights of young people in Utah, but they also just don’t really make any sense,” Evan Greer, the director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told Vox.
Defenders of Utah’s new laws, including some children’s advocacy groups, believe that social media platforms are harmful to children and their mental health and that the tools those platforms have implemented willingly aren’t enough. That’s a complaint we’ve been hearing a lot more of lately, especially after Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed that the company knew its platforms harmed minors’ mental health but didn’t do enough to prevent it. In his two State of the Union addresses, President Biden has said that social media platforms are “experimenting” on children. Several bills aimed at children and online services, including social media, have been introduced in recent Congresses. None have passed, but they have bipartisan support, and it appears that both houses of the current Congress are determined to get something over the finish line. Several members of Congress in the recent hearing about TikTok stressed the dangers of all social media platforms on children.
“I suspect that you will see lots of bills like these, and of course we are working with our federal partners as well,” Cox said. “This is one of those rare areas today where we see broad agreement amongst both Republicans and Democrats.”
Indeed, several states are considering children’s social media laws, including Arkansas, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Texas. California passed a law last year that would increase privacy protections for children online. It takes effect July 1 of next year. And Louisiana has a law that requires websites that have a certain amount of pornographic content on them to verify that users are at least 18 before they can view it.
So even if you don’t live in Utah, you should prepare yourself for the possibility that the state you do live in — or even the federal government — will pass something similar. That seems especially likely if Utah’s law survives the inevitable court challenges. There is also a chance that some of these platforms apply Utah’s rules to the entire country, as the borderless nature of the internet makes it difficult to set rules for just one state (see: how several companies have applied provisions of California’s online privacy laws to all Americans).
TikTok and Snapchat did not respond to a request for comment about Utah’s new laws. Meta didn’t say if it intends to challenge the law or if it would simply stop offering its services in Utah to avoid having to comply with it. Instead, the company noted that it already has “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” and that it will “continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues.”
Greer believes that “very real harms” are caused by social media companies with business models based on the collection of data, but that there are other, better ways to deal with those harms.
“Rather than pushing for legislation that actually weakens kids’ online safety and security, lawmakers should focus on passing comprehensive privacy legislation,” Greer said. “The FTC and state regulators should crack down on predatory design practices like autoplay and infinite scroll, the use of personal data for algorithmic recommendations, and intrusive notifications.”