Tighter social media restrictions for kids set for test run in Utah

The governor and lawmakers in the state vowed to crack down on companies’ engagement with younger users.
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) and GOP legislators are vowing to crack down on social media companies and how they engage with younger users, citing concerns about youth mental health.

Details are still being worked out and no bills have been formally introduced ahead of the legislative session’s Jan. 17 start. But state Rep. Jordan Teuscher (R) said in an interview he expects two separate bills to be filed — one in the House and one in the Senate — that focus on five primary areas of concern.

Teuscher said one of the bills would likely prohibit youth under a certain age, perhaps 15 or 16, from having a social media account and require parental approval for older teens up to age 18 to sign up. Most social media sites currently require users to be at least 13.

“I think that’s too young; I don’t think kids are ready for social media at 13,” said Teuscher, a father of three.

That bill would also institute a robust age verification process and ensure parental controls are in place on platforms. The second bill, Teuscher said, would restrict features that are designed to keep kids glued to their screens, and establish limits on data collection and targeting ads at youth.

Teuscher said Utah’s effort to regulate social media has momentum this year, with the support of legislative leadership, Attorney General Sean Reyes (R), and the governor. At a recent symposium on social media and youth mental health, Cox offered a blunt message for the companies.

“We are putting you on notice,” Cox warned. “You have some options: You can fight, and that’s fine, we’re ready for the fight. Or you can join us and be part of the solution.”

Utah’s get-tough talk is indicative of a growing movement in states, in the absence of federal action, to try to protect kids from addictive algorithms and potentially harmful online content. It comes amid growing alarm about the state of youth mental health with rising rates of self-harm and suicide.

From 2009 to 2019, the percentage of high school students who seriously considered attempting suicide rose from 13.8% to 18.8%. From 2007 to 2017, the suicide rate for people ages 10 to 24 increased 56%. Studies have linked social media use to anxiety and depression among teens.

At the recent symposium, Cox likened social media to opioids, which he said “are awesome” in combating pain but have a “very dangerous” side effect of being addictive.

“These apps are smarter than your brain, they are designed to hack our brains and to get us addicted,” Cox said. “We’re going to do something about it in the state of Utah because we care about the next generation.”

Tech trade groups said they were waiting to see specific bill language but expressed wariness.

In a statement, Adam Kovacevich of the center-left Chamber of Progress said: “Isolating Utah’s children from social media would eliminate the ability of kids to connect with peers outside of their hometown, cut off access to educational resources, and erase a source of connection with the outside world.”

The Computer and Communications Industry Association said states should work with industry “to meet children and parents where they are.”

“Solutions to this important issue should be narrowly tailored to solving the intended goal and minimize consequences such as barriers to innovation and market entry,” Khara Boender, the association’s state policy director, said in a statement.

Both groups count Google and Meta, the parent companies of YouTube and Instagram respectively, among their members.

Utah isn’t the only state targeting social media companies this year. In Texas, state Rep. Jared Patterson (R) introduced a sweeping bill to prohibit youth from accessing social media until they turn 18.

Minnesota state Rep. Kristin Robbins (R) proposed legislation last year that would have prohibited social media sites from using algorithms to target users under age 18. Robbins said the bill, which didn’t pass, was inspired by a Wall Street Journal investigation into TikTok’s algorithms. Robbins told Pluribus News she plans to reintroduce the legislation for 2023.

While social media sites draw the most scrutiny, digital privacy advocates are pushing for a broader approach to protecting youth from online harms.

Last year, California lawmakers passed a first-in-the-nation age-appropriate design code law that requires internet companies, not just social media sites, to “consider the best interests of children” when designing their services or features that are likely to be accessed by youth.

Similar bills are likely to be introduced in several states this year, even as the new California law faces a legal challenge from the tech industry.

Nichole Rocha, head of U.S. Affairs for the London-based youth privacy group 5Rights Foundation, which was instrumental in passage of the California law, said video games and streaming services can also be addictive, and that targeted advertising and location tracking happen across the internet.

“Limiting any reform to social media alone ignores the reality of our data driven economy and fails to protect children where they are online,” Rocha said.

Rocha also cautioned against putting the onus on parents to police what their children do on the internet and warned of reforms that shut youth out from access to the internet.

Teuscher said the Utah legislation will “very much mirror” the California law but defended the narrower approach.

“We are using our scalpel to target this as much as we possibly can so it’s not overly burdensome on adults and other types of businesses,” Teuscher said.

He also said the bills were being designed with the goal of withstanding legal challenges.

Teuscher said Utah, a heavily Republican state where more than 60% of the population identifies as Mormon, is an obvious choice to lead an effort to regulate social media companies because it has the highest percentage of residents under 18.

“We have really engaged parents that are seeing the problems that are being created and are asking for help to be able to solve it,” Teuscher said. “They can’t do it on their own.”

Beyond the social media bills, incoming Utah state Rep. Trevor Lee (R) said he will introduce legislation this year to ban cellphones in school classrooms in Utah.

“It’s about making sure they are going to have a better opportunity to learn in school without these distractions,” Lee said in November.