Youth online safety bills win passage in 3 more states

Legislatures controlled by both parties are pushing to deal with the issue.
A line-up of Apple iPhone 13s. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

A legislative offensive that seeks to rebalance the relationship between youth and online purveyors has secured wins in three more states, continuing a trend that began in California last year and has accelerated in recent months.

“The ground is shifting quickly,” California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D) said. “I think it’s a result of parents wanting action.”

Connecticut, Louisiana and Texas are the latest states to approve legislation.

In Connecticut, lawmakers passed a sweeping update to the state’s comprehensive data privacy law that includes new provisions aimed at protecting youth from online harms. Louisiana legislators approved two different bills aimed at requiring parental consent for kids to set up online accounts. 

Texas lawmakers passed the “Securing Children Online through Parental Empowerment Act,” which requires parental permission for digital service providers to collect a minor’s personal data and gives parents access to their teen’s accounts.

“It’s very clear that doing something about teens online is a bipartisan issue,” said Bailey Sanchez, who tracks youth and education policy at the Future of Privacy Forum. Sanchez called it “a big deal” that so many state legislatures have acted this year.

Since March, at least five states have adopted children’s privacy legislation while others have included language aimed at protecting children in broader data privacy laws. In addition, Ohio’s budget contains language to require age-verification and parental permission for teens under age 16 to have a social media account.

Separately, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) recently signed an executive order directing state agencies and the attorney general’s office to develop an education campaign to warn of the “harms of social media” on youth.

Overall, children’s privacy bills were introduced in 22 states this year, according to tracking by the law firm Husch Blackwell. 

The swift adoption of state-level youth online protection laws comes as federal efforts to pass legislation languish. It also reflects growing alarm among state lawmakers and governors about the impacts of social media on kids. Those concerns were amplified last month when the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued an advisory warning about social media’s negative effect on the mental wellbeing of young people.

“We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis — one that we must urgently address,” Murthy said in a statement accompanying the advisory. 

Murthy said more research is needed, but state lawmakers have demonstrated they are not willing to wait to legislate.

Last year, the California legislature passed a first-in-the-nation Age-Appropriate Design Code law modeled on regulations in the United Kingdom. The law, which now faces a tech industry legal challenge, requires online sites and platforms that are likely to be visited by kids to be designed with their best interests in mind.

Design code bills modeled on the California law were introduced this year in fellow blue states Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada and New Mexico.

Tech industry opposition was fierce and none of the bills passed, but elements of the California law were incorporated into digital privacy measures in other states, including Florida. 

In red states, much of the focus has been on regulating social media and giving parents a greater role in their kids’ digital lives.

Gov. Spencer Cox (R) signed a law in March making Utah the first state to require parental permission for teens to get a social media account. Cox also approved a second measure that prohibits social media sites from deploying addictive design features and allowing parents to sue 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 at the time.

Arkansas lawmakers quickly followed Utah’s lead and passed their own parental consent social media law.

The Connecticut, Louisiana and Texas measures each take unique approaches to trying to rein in how tech companies interact with youth.

The Connecticut bill requires online service providers that process personal data to use “reasonable care to avoid any heightened risk of harm to minors” from using their product. Harm is defined as intrusion upon a minor’s privacy or something that would expose them to “financial, physical or reputational injury.”

“Over 95% of children have access to social media sites including YouTube and today we took a small step in making sure children are safe online,” Sen. James Maroney (D) said in a statement after shepherding the bill to passage in the Senate last month. 

The Texas bill, which was a priority of House Speaker Dade Phelan (R), requires digital service providers to ensure minors are not exposed to content related to topics like self-harm, suicide, sexual exploitation and advertisements for products such as alcohol and tobacco.

The pair of Louisiana measures — one from the House, the other from the Senate — tackle the issue of parental consent differently. The House measure nullifies any contract or agreement between a minor and an interactive computer service that has not been approved by a parent or guardian.

The Senate bill more closely resembles the Arkansas and Utah laws by requiring social media companies to verify the age of users and barring minors from having a social media account without parental or guardian approval. 

“The problem is Big Tech has been given a pass for so long,” said Louisiana Rep. Laurie Schlegel (R), the author of the House bill. “They have all the benefits of engaging with minors without any of the responsibility or accountability.”

The tech industry has lobbied to stop the state-by-state patchwork of regulations and, when that has failed, urged governors to veto the bills.

In a letter last month to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), NetChoice, a right-of-center trade association, said the bill violates the U.S. Constitution and “represents a major government incursion into the traditional role that the family has played in Texas and American history.”

Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech group, warned in a letter to Louisiana lawmakers that efforts to restrict youth access to social media “would sacrifice all users’ privacy in the name of increased security for children.”

Youth advocates have also expressed concern about the parental consent requirements.

“It’s on Big Tech to protect young people by ensuring our privacy is of utmost importance by designing their products with our input, not handing over control to parents to infringe on kids’ right to privacy,” said Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of Design It For Us, a youth-led campaign that supports California-style design code legislation, in a statement.

In an email to Pluribus News, Common Sense Media generally praised the Connecticut bill but expressed concerns about the Louisiana and Texas measures.

“[W]e believe the parental consent to access model we’re seeing in many states is misguided,” wrote Irene Ly, a tech policy counsel at Common Sense Media. “We shouldn’t focus on restricting access, but rather, when kids and teens do go online, how can their experience be safer.”

Reid Wilson contributed reporting to this story.