Utah’s social media crackdown catches fire in other states

Arkansas already enacted one, as bills are being considered in several more states.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signs the Social Media Safety Act, on Wednesday April 12, 2023. (Courtesy of the Arkansas governor’s office)

Utah’s groundbreaking law requiring teenagers to get their parents’ permission to have a social media account is quickly being replicated in other states.

Less than a month after Gov. Spencer Cox (R) signed Utah’s first-in-the-nation law, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) this week signed legislation dubbed the Social Media Safety Act. Like Utah, the Arkansas law will require social media companies to verify the age of new account holders and parent or guardian permission for users under 18.

“While social media can be a great tool and a wonderful resource it can have a massive negative impact on our kids,” Sanders said at a bill signing ceremony.

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Several more states have considered variations on that legislation, with the goal to protect kids.

A social media parental consent bill has also been introduced in Louisiana. A bill in Kansas would require that parents be notified when their child downloads an online app.

In Iowa, lawmakers are considering legislation that would bar social media sites from collecting, using or disclosing data from youth users without parental permission.

“I want parents to be involved,” said Iowa Rep. John Wills (R), who is shepherding the bill at the request of the House speaker.

A previous version of the Iowa bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Stone (R), a foster parent and former high school football coach, would have applied a blanket ban on youth under 18 from having a social media account.

“I just saw trends going in the wrong direction with kids and social media,” Stone told Pluribus News.

Other states have considered a total ban as well. A bill banning access to social media by anyone under 18 years old was introduced in Texas but has not advanced. An early version of the Utah bill would have prohibited anyone under 16 from having a social media account.

The parental permission bills fit into a broader state-level push for youth digital privacy laws aimed at rebalancing the relationship between the tech industry and under 18 users. The effort, led by both Republicans and Democrats, comes amid mounting concern about the data companies are harvesting from kids, the mental health effects of social media, and the addictive nature of certain online design features and algorithms.

The bills ping-ponging in state legislatures generally fit into one of three categories: social media regulation, online data privacy restrictions and youth-appropriate design standards. In many cases the bills are works in progress as legislators grapple with how best to regulate multi-billion-dollar global companies.

A social media bill sponsored by California Sen. Nancy Skinner (D) aims to bar companies from deploying addictive algorithms, designs, or features designed to hook youth or that encourage kids to engage in harmful behavior. The measure advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, but the committee’s chair made it clear he is not satisfied with the current language.

“I think that there’s plenty of work that needs to be done,” state Sen. Tom Umberg (D) said.

A related California measure would bar social media companies from deploying addictive design features at the expense of a child’s health and wellbeing. A third bill would require social media platforms to make third-party online safety software available to parents.

This year’s efforts in California build upon passage last year of a first-in-the-nation age-appropriate design code law that was modeled after similar rules in the United Kingdom. The California law will require online companies whose platforms are likely to be accessed by kids to “consider the best interests of children” when designing their services or features.

As part of a coordinated push to replicate the California law elsewhere, lawmakers in Maryland and New Mexico tried, but failed, to enact design code legislation this year. Versions of the model legislation were also introduced in Minnesota and Nevada.

Other states where youth data privacy legislation was introduced this year include Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, according to tracking by the Husch Blackwell law firm.

The onslaught of bills triggered lobbying showdowns in statehouses as the tech industry tries to squelch the state-by-state approach to regulation.

“These proposals that we’re seeing across the country stem from good intentions: lawmakers want to find ways to help children be safer online. But their chosen methods give the government unconstitutional control of online speech,” Carl Szabo of the right-of-center tech trade group NetChoice said in a statement.

Szabo said state lawmakers should instead pass laws that require students to get instruction on “healthy social media use” and online safety. He pointed to education-related bills in Florida, Indiana and Virginia.

“This will help educate American youth on healthy digital practices rather than allowing the government to digitally parent and undermine First Amendment rights,” Szabo said.

NetChoice is suing to halt California’s age-appropriate design law. Utah’s new youth social media laws are also expected to draw legal challenges.

The tech industry warned of unintended consequences if the new laws are implemented.

“Teens from marginalized communities, including LGBTQ teens, could suffer some of the worst harms from parental control legislation,” Chris MacKenzie, a spokesperson for Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech group, said in a statement.

The common refrain from lawmakers and governors is that social media is causing deep, lasting damage to a generation of kids and that something needs to be done. In Arkansas, Sanders cited depression, anxiety, loneliness and suicide rates, especially among teen girls, as a key factor in her support for the parental consent bill.

Also fueling the state action is inaction at the federal level. Existing federal law, known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, regulates how internet companies interact with children under 13 but not older kids.

State lawmakers are reacting to a “general frustration that we don’t have a national privacy law,” said Alex Alben, a UCLA law professor and Washington State’s former chief privacy officer. But he cautioned that “well-meaning” state laws could backfire.

“There’s gonna be problems with implementation,” Alben predicted.

He said age-verification requirements often require companies to collect more data from users. Alben also said young people will figure out ways to get around parental permission requirements. A better approach, he said, would be for state lawmakers to “call their congressman and have them pass a national privacy law.”

But state lawmakers say that is not a viable option given gridlock in Congress.

“There’s just no appetite for this kind of thing in Washington, D.C.,” Wills said.