Utah plans to sue social media companies over youth harm

There is also forthcoming legislation in the state aiming to regulate youth access to the sites.
In this Feb. 23, 2017, file photo, Utah Republican Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) and Attorney General Sean Reyes (R) announced plans to sue social media companies over alleged harm to children.

The move comes as Utah lawmakers also tee up legislation to regulate youth access to social media sites and impose new requirements on the companies.

“Without strong action on our part, social media companies will simply not make the changes that are necessary to protect our children,” Cox said at a news conference at the state Capitol on Monday.

“The negative aspects of social media are an existential threat to our youth,” Reyes said.

Cox and Reyes declined to discuss the specifics of the planned lawsuits or identify which companies would be targeted, but said they anticipate the lawsuits will be filed after the attorney general’s office contracts with an outside law firm to handle the litigation.

“We’re not naming names right now, but we’re putting everyone on notice,” Cox said.

Instead, the governor and attorney general used the news conference to build their case for why they believe social media companies should be taken to court. Cox said social media has taken a toll on the mental wellbeing of youth by exposing them to bullying, harmful behavior and unrealistic views of other people’s lives.

“We know that social media is linked with higher levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm, this is especially true with girls and young women,” Cox said.

Reyes warned of the sexual exploitation of youth via social media, including cases of sextortion where teens are solicited for nude photos and then blackmailed.

“Sextortion is a plague across the country,” Reyes said.

This month, the FBI warned of an “explosion” in sextortion incidents, often using social media or gaming sites, that target mostly teen boys that have led to more than a dozen suicides.

Reyes noted at the news conference that both he and Cox had previously worked in the tech industry and acknowledged that social media has “positive applications.”

“We are not here to destroy companies, we are here to destroy the threat that many social media companies have allowed to grow to the great detriment of our kids,” Reyes said.

In telegraphing the litigation to come, Cox compared the pending lawsuits to legal action taken in the past against tobacco and opioid companies.

“We know that social media companies know about the consequences their platforms and algorithms are having on mental wellbeing, and still they do nothing,” Cox alleged. “The problem is that just like the opioid companies, they knew how bad it was before we did.”

Social media companies have consistently defended their platforms as a place where teens can find connection and support. The companies also say they take steps to safeguard younger users. The minimum age to sign up for most social media sites is 13.

Utah’s announcement this week comes on the heels of separate lawsuits filed earlier this month against several social media companies by a pair of school districts in Washington State.

Seattle Public Schools was the first to sue. In response, Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for the tech trade group NetChoice, dismissed the litigation as scapegoating, saying in a statement then that “finger-pointing at new technology does not mean it is responsible for the underlying issue at hand.”

In December, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) sued TikTok alleging it does not do enough to protect youth from adult content.