Gov. Cox says he’ll sign any social media regulations

Feb 17, 2023, 11:06 AM

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his fiscal year 2024 budget recommendations at the state Capitol in Sa...

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his fiscal year 2024 budget recommendations at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The governor is requesting a record $28.4 billion budget loaded with items that he says will help future generations. (Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)

(Kristin Murphy/Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — In case it’s still unclear how Utah Gov. Spencer Cox feels about efforts to regulate social media in the state, Cox said he would sign any and all bills to hold social media companies accountable for harms to children.

During his monthly news conference Thursday, Cox reiterated his plea to lawmakers to put guardrails around social media use for kids.

“I would sign anything they can get to my desk, anything they can get to my desk holding social media companies accountable,” Cox said, when asked what legislative efforts he supports when it comes to social media.

Cox cited a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that shows a striking increase in persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness among American youth, specifically teen girls. The report found that 57% of teen girls felt sad or hopeless in 2021, up from 36% in 2011.

Thirty percent of girls surveyed said they had seriously considered attempting suicide.

“The data that came out this week — if you’re not convinced by that, I don’t know what to say,” Cox said. “This is a crisis.”

The study also found that 16% of teens experienced being bullied online. Girls were nearly twice as likely to have been bullied than boys, and those who identify as LGBTQ were more than twice as likely to have been bullied compared to their heterosexual peers.

“I’m grateful that the national conversation is catching up to the conversation that we started four or five months ago here in the state of Utah,” Cox said.

Although the CDC study doesn’t explicitly link social media use to increasing rates of depression, the drastic increase in adverse events for teens does coincide with the widespread adoption of social media over the past decade.

Cox — who made social media regulation a key issue earlier this year and has threatened to sue various platforms — said he believes there is a “causal link” between social media use and negative mental health outcomes.

“We are literally killing our kids with this stuff,” he said. “I suspect that 10 years from now, we’ll look back on this the way we look back on opioids, the way we look back on tobacco use, and just say, ‘What were we doing? I can’t believe we did this to our kids.'”

How will the Legislature regulate social media?

Cox said he would sign any and all social media regulations, so what will those look like?

Currently, there are two major social media bills working their way through the Utah Legislature, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, and Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who is also Cox’s brother-in-law.

SB152, which passed the Senate on Wednesday, would prevent minors from creating social media accounts without parental consent, and would require social media companies to verify the ages of all users in Utah. The bill was amended to say that social media companies can’t rely solely on government-issued IDs to verify ages, meaning they’ll likely have to turn to facial recognition software or existing consumer data for verification.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said SB251 would let Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection come up with more specific rules in cooperation with social media companies.

“Technology is really good now,” he said. “As I’ve met with stakeholders, they’ve brought some ideas with some technologies and we want to make sure that those are addressed when we do the verification process.”

Cox took to Twitter on Thursday morning to argue for policies like McKell’s, saying, “These are good policies for kids and families and wildly popular.”

A recent Institute for Family Studies/YouGov poll found that 81% of parents “strongly” or “somewhat” support requiring parental permission for minors to open social media accounts, and 77% support giving parents full access to minors’ social media accounts.

Teuscher’s bill, HB311, initially would have prevented kids under the age of 16 from joining social media at all, but it was amended to simply create a private right of action meant to make it easier for individuals to sue social media companies for knowingly causing harm. The bill also specifies that online contracts entered into by minors are invalid without their parents’ consent, and it prohibits social media companies from using features known to cause minors to become addicted to social media.

HB311 would create a legal assumption that social media use is harmful to minors, so if social media companies are sued, they would have the burden of proof to demonstrate otherwise.

“This helps to level out that playing field so that parents have tools to be able to hold these companies accountable,” Teuscher said.

Cox said the state still plans to move forward with lawsuits against major tech platforms, but details about potential lawsuits have yet to be announced. He said he looks forward to holding social media companies accountable through both legislation and litigation, and doesn’t feel lawsuits would violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

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Gov. Cox says he’ll sign any social media regulations