Utah just passed legislation that is set to limit minors’ social media use and require parental permission for kids to use platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, but there’s no clear plan on how it would be enforced.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed two bills into effect Thursday that prevent children from using social media from 10:30 P.M. to 6:30 A.M., require age verification to join social media and offer the opportunity to sue companies on behalf of children who can claim they were harmed by social media.Both laws are collectively known as the Social Media Regulation Act, and are set to take effect on March 1, 2024.
The legislation also seeks to limit children’s exposure to addictive features on social media and targeted advertising that could cause damage.
“I think we need to do something,” Cox said. “These are first-of-their-kind bills in the United States. That’s huge.”
But the bills, SB152 and HB311, face backlash from opponents over concerns that it violates teens’ privacy and freedom of speech.
“These types of laws are imperfect and maybe they’re not respecting the rights of minors, but maybe they will help build societal inertia and get these out of control companies to be better,” says Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who researches social media.
Social media companies across the web generally adhere to a 13 and up policy, meaning they ask users to confirm that they’re at least 13 years old before enrolling to use the site—but there are plenty of ways to get around the age requirement that clever kids have been using for years.
“Young people will find workarounds. They’ll figure it out; if TikTok gets banned here, they might find a VPN,” Grygiel says.
Parents have long worried that the rise in teen social media use not only impacts mental health, but also puts kids at risk of cyberbullying, online grooming and exposure to graphic content, hate speech and misinformation.
Some companies, like TikTok, have been listening. Amid controversy over the app’s data privacy, it rolled out measures that limit screen time and reduce features like direct messaging, for minors’ accounts,
However, research has shown how easy it is for kids to bypass age requirements on social media. Measures like asking for identification with date of birth can be bypassed if minors use someone else’s ID; kids can link their accounts to someone else’s who’s registered as an adult and get access that way.
Major social media companies have yet to announce plans to challenge the laws, but legal experts anticipate legal battles over the next year. Critics point out that giving parents access to their children’s posts and messages can severely limit their privacy and be unsafe for children in abusive situations or endanger LGBTQ youth. Some also suggest that requiring users to share more personal data to verify their identities is hypocritical to protecting children from exploitative advertising.
Parents and educators realize that kids can still log onto the app, but many believe that laws like Utah’s and initiatives like the ones TikTok just rolled out encourage teens to be more intentional about social media use and perhaps limit it.
“Up until the last couple of years, these platforms have had unfettered access to children,” Grygiel says. “Maybe it’s a signal to these companies to increase corporate social responsibility.”
“If they are not effectively running their companies, society will continue to pass more and more laws to the point where it becomes difficult for them to do business,” Grygiel adds.
Other mostly Republican-led states—Arkansas, Texas, Ohio, Louisiana and New Jersey—are following in Utah’s steps, trying to pass similar legislation that would put pressure on social media giants to limit minors’ access. Like other advocates of the measures, Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that wants technology to be more child-friendly, says that they encourage other states to “hold social media companies accountable to ensure kids across the country are protected online.”
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