Utah poised to require parental permission for youth social media accounts

The legislature passed two bills with broad bipartisan support, and the governor is expected to sign them.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News, via AP, Pool, File)

Utah lawmakers on Thursday sent a pair of bills to Gov. Spencer Cox (R) that would require teens to get parental permission to have a social media account and empower parents to sue social media companies for alleged harms to their children.

The bills, which passed with broad bipartisan support, position the Beehive State at the forefront of a growing state-level movement to place new restrictions on social media companies and how they interact with kids.

Cox, who recently threatened to sue the industry, is expected to sign both measures.

“The passage of these groundbreaking bills shows Utah is serious when it comes to protecting our children from the harms of social media,” Cox said in a statement to Pluribus News. “We thank legislators for supporting our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our young people.”

The Utah effort comes amid growing concern from state and federal elected officials about the mental health of young people and the effects of social media on their emotional wellbeing.

Lawmakers in several states this year proposed new restrictions on social media companies and how they interact with youth. But Utah, whose 45-day legislative session is scheduled to adjourn Friday, has moved the quickest.

One of the bills, sponsored by state Sen. Mike McKell (R), would require social media companies to verify the age of all account holders beginning March 1, 2024. The companies would also have to obtain parent or guardian consent for all existing and future users under 18 — and provide guardians with a password that allowed them full access to their child’s account.

For youth who are approved to have an account, the bill would require companies to establish a default setting that blocks access between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. Parents could adjust those limits. The measure would also prohibit direct messaging between the child and anyone they haven’t followed or friended.

Other provisions of the bill would ban companies from collecting or using a child’s data, prohibit display advertising, and disallow features that steer users to services, products or posts. Companies would also have to block the accounts of children from search results.

Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection would enforce the law, and each violation could bring a fine of up to $2,500. Members of the public could also sue by bringing what is known as a private right of action.

The second bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jordan Teuscher (R), borrows from age-appropriate design legislation that California enacted last year. It would prohibit social media companies from deploying addictive design features and impose fines of $250,000 for each violation, plus a penalty of up to $2,500 per child who was exposed to an addictive feature. Social media companies could avoid fines if they conduct quarterly audits of their design features and address any violations within 30 days.

The bill would also allow parents to directly sue companies for financial, physical or emotional harms caused by their child’s use of a social media platform. For youth under age 16, harm would be presumed under the law and the companies would have to prove otherwise in court.

“We believe these two important bills will help protect minors in the state and rebalance social media companies’ incentives so they cease to target minors and cause them to be addicted to their platforms in order to pad their pocketbooks,” Teuscher said in an email.

An earlier version of Teuscher’s bill would have banned youth under 16 from having a social media account, but that provision was removed. Even without that language, the presumption of harm provision could potentially serve as a de facto ban on social media for teens younger than 16.

Both Teuscher and McKell said they hope Utah’s legislation serves as a model for other states and Congress.

“I think it’s a powerful message and I’m glad we’ve sent the message here [in Utah], but I hope to see a strong federal bill in the future,” McKell said in an interview.

Existing federal privacy law protects youth under age 13.

The tech industry on Thursday swiftly condemned the Utah legislation as an overreach.

“These bills are misguided attempts to address a serious problem at best and a massive expansion of government-mandated personal information sharing at worst,” Dylan Hoffman with TechNet, a bipartisan tech CEO group, said in a statement.

In a separate statement, Adam Kovacevich, CEO of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech group, said the measures would isolate, not protect teens.

“Before Governor Cox signs these bills into law, there needs to be a serious conversation about their unintended impact on privacy and censorship,” Kovacevich said.

The Utah bills would apply to social media companies with at least 5 million account holders worldwide. They would not cover email accounts, direct messaging platforms, streaming services or interactive gaming sites.