Utah enacts first social media parental approval requirement

The tech industry is likely to sue over the new law.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News, via AP, Pool, File)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) signed what has been called a first-in-the-nation state law to require parental permission for teenagers to have social media accounts.

At a bill signing ceremony Thursday, Cox trumpeted the requirement as necessary to protect youth from harms associated with social media.
“There is causation between … poor mental health outcomes and time spent on social media and these apps,” Cox said.

Under the new law, social media companies must verify the age of all Utah residents who are current account holders or who want to open an account. For those under age 18, parents or guardians must grant permission for their child to have an account.

Other provisions in the Utah law bar social media companies from targeting ads at minors, prevent strangers from direct-messaging kids, and block teens from accessing their accounts during overnight hours. The law also aims to restrict companies from collecting, sharing or using a teen user’s personal information.

A second measure Cox signed Thursday prohibits social media companies from deploying addictive design features and makes it easier for parents to directly sue the companies for alleged harms.

“These are first of their kind bills in the United States and that’s huge that Utah is leading out on this effort,” Cox said.

While backers heralded the laws as pioneering, the tech industry criticized the new requirements as invasive and unconstitutional.

“We’re all but certain to see a legal challenge,” said Bailey Sanchez, with the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that receives industry and foundation funding.

Tech industry groups have warned that the new laws violate the First Amendment rights of both users and online service providers.

“These bills’ shared goal to protect children from harmful content is laudable,” NetChoice wrote  in a March 2 letter requesting Cox veto the bills. “But their chosen means are unconstitutional and will require businesses to collect sensitive information about children, counterproductively putting children at risk.”

NetChoice, a libertarian-oriented trade group, is currently suing the state of California over a sweeping youth data privacy law that passed last year. Utah borrows elements from the California law.

TechFreedom, a free-market think tank, also wrote to Cox calling the bills “rushed” and saying they raise “grave constitutional issues.” The letter, which was co-signed by several law professors, warned that by requiring age-verification Utah was “effectively abolishing online anonymity.”

Cox, in a Twitter back-and-forth this month with TechFreedom’s Ari Cohn, said he welcomed a legal challenge.

“Can’t wait to fight this lawsuit. You are wrong and I’m excited to prove it,” Cox tweeted, adding, “See you in court.”

Beyond potential legal issues, critics say Utah’s approach sacrifices teen privacy. One of the law’s provisions requires social media companies to give parents a password or other means of accessing their teen’s social media account where they can review all posts and private messages.

“I think it puts teens in a weird place,” said Sanchez, with the Future of Privacy Forum. “I know when I was 16, I wouldn’t have wanted my parents to see all of my messages.”

In a statement Thursday, Adam Kovacevich, CEO of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech group, warned of the effect on marginalized teens.

“[T]he biggest victim of today’s legislation is going to be young adults living in a household without supportive parents. For young people who identify as LGBTQ or who live in abusive households, these bills could isolate them from supportive communities online,” Kovacevich said.

Kovacevich pointed to a recent case in Utah where a brother and sister barricaded themselves in a bedroom and began livestreaming on TikTok to draw attention to a judge’s order that they be returned to their abusive father.

Utah is one of several states this year that has sought to crackdown on social media companies amid growing concern about young people’s mental health. Measures to require parental permission for social media accounts have also been introduced in Connecticut and Ohio. Some Florida lawmakers want social media warning labels for teens. A pair of California bills would target algorithms that encourage minors to engage in harmful activities and penalize social media sites that abet commercial sexual exploitation

“I actually view this issue as one of the few truly bipartisan things that is actually — at least from what I’ve seen in California — bringing Democrats and Republicans together on something,” said California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D), who authored this year’s sexual exploitation bill as well as last year’s youth privacy law, which other states are considering adopting this year.

Wicks said she would like to see Congress establish national standards. Absent that, states are forging ahead.

Besides the tech industry, the new Utah laws have also drawn the attention of youth advocates. Common Sense Media, which provides age-ratings and researches the impact of media on children, said it supports the measure banning addictive design features but opposes the parental consent bill.

“We think that’s basically giving access to parents to see their kids’ diaries,” said Irene Ly, Common Sense Media’s policy counsel.

Ly cautioned against states focusing only on social media and advocated for a more platform agnostic approach to regulation because of rapid changes in technology and the fact that kids encounter addictive features and data tracking across the internet.

“A lot of kids are being harmed online and on social media,” said Irene Ly, Common Sense Media’s policy counsel. “[Social media] shouldn’t be the only type of platform that we’re looking at.”