Gov. Cox signs bill requiring parental approval for teens to join social media sites

Mar 23, 2023, 4:06 PM

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(CNN) — The governor of Utah signed a controversial bill on Thursday that will require minors to obtain the consent of a guardian before joining social media platforms, marking the most aggressive step yet by state or federal lawmakers to protect kids online.

As part of the bill, called the Utah Social Media Regulation Act, social media platforms will have to conduct age verification for all Utah residents, ban all ads for minors and impose a curfew, making their sites off-limits between the hours of 10:30 p.m. – 6:30 a.m. for anyone under the age of 18. The bill will also require social platforms to give parents access to their teens’ accounts.

The legislation, which was introduced by Republican Sen. Michael McKell and passed by Republican Governor Spencer Cox, will go into effect on March 1, 2024.

“When it comes down to it, [the bill] is about protecting our children,” McKell said in a statement to CNN, citing how depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation have “drastically increased” among teens in Utah and across the United States alongside the growth of social media sites. “As a lawmaker and parent, I believe this bill is the best path forward to prevent our children from succumbing to the negative and sometimes life-threatening effects of social media.”

Cox said the bill is intended to hold media companies accountable for the damage they are doing to young people.

“One of the ways that we’re doing, that is a presumption of harm to kids under the age of 16,” Cox said. “So that it would be incumbent upon the social media companies to try to overcome that presumption, and it empowers parents the private right of action to sue social media companies or for damage that is done to their children.”

Those bills will likely face a challenge in court and Cox said he is ready for it.

“I can’t wait to hold them accountable. I can’t wait to get in front of a judge and jury with these media companies, it will be one of the happiest days of my life when we get to show the world what they’ve known and what they’ve been doing to our kids.”

The legislation comes after years of US lawmakers calling for new safeguards to protect teens online, amid concerns about social platforms leading younger users down harmful rabbit holes, enabling new forms of bullying and harassment, and adding to what’s been described as a teen mental health crisis in the country. To date, however, no federal legislation has passed.

Utah is the first of a broader list of states introducing similar proposals. In Connecticut and Ohio, for example, lawmakers are working to pass legislation that would require social media companies to get parent permission before users under age 16 can join.

“We can assume more methods like the Utah bill could find their way into other states’ plans, especially if actions are not taken at the federal level,” said Michael Inouye, an analyst at ABI Research. “Eventually, if enough states implement similar or related legislation, we could see a more concerted effort at the federal level to codify these (likely) disparate state laws under a US-wide policy.”

Industry experts and Big Tech companies have long urged the US government to introduce regulations that could help keep young social media users safe. But even before the bill’s passage, some had raised concerns about the impact of the legislation. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, said Utah’s specific set of rules are “dangerous” when it comes to user privacy and added that the bill will make user data less secure, internet access less private, and infringe upon younger users’ basic rights.

“Social media provides a lifeline for many young people, in addition to community, education, and conversation,” said Jason Kelley, director of activism at the EFF. “They use it in part because it can be private … The law, which would limit social media access and require parental consent and monitoring for minors, will incalculably harm the ability of young people to protect their privacy and deter them from exercising their rights.”

Lucy Ivey, an 18-year-old TikTok influencer who attends Utah Valley University, agreed, saying some of her friends in the LGBTQ community may face challenges with the change.

“My worry with this bill is that it will take away privacy from teenagers, and a lot of kids don’t have good relationships with their parents or don’t have a reliable guardian that would be needed to get access to social media,” she told CNN. “I think about my LGBTQ friends; some who have had a hard time with their parents because of their sexuality or identity, and they could be losing an important place where they can be themselves, and be seen and heard.”

Ivey, who launched a publication called Our Era at age 15 and amplified its content on TikTok, said she’s also concerned about how the bill will impact content creators like herself. (If a legal guardian disapproves of a teen’s online activity or digital presence, those individuals may have to put their accounts on hold until they are 18 years old.)

“With a new law like this, they may now be intimidated and discouraged by the legal hoops required to use social media out of fear of authority or their parents, or fear of losing their privacy at a time when teens are figuring out who they are,” Ivey said.

Facebook parent Meta told CNN it has the same goals as parents and policymakers, but the company said it also wants young people to have safe, positive experiences online and keep its platforms accessible. Antigone Davis, the global head of safety for Meta, said the company will “continue to work closely with experts, policymakers, and parents on these important issues.”

Representatives for TikTok and Snap did not respond to a request for comment.

Given that the bill is unprecedented, it’s unclear how exactly the social media companies will adapt. For example, the legislation calls for platforms to turn off algorithms for “suggested content.” This particular guideline may help keep teens from falling down rabbit holes toward potentially harmful content, but it could present new issues, too. It might mean the company would no longer have oversight and control over downranking problematic content that may show up in a user’s feed.

Some of the bill’s guidelines may also be difficult to enforce. Inouye said minors could “steal” identities — such as from family members who don’t use social media — to create accounts that they can access and use without oversight. VPNs could also complicate matching IP addresses to the states of the users, he said.

But even if legislative steps from Utah and other states prove to be flawed, Inouye says “these early efforts are at minimum bringing attention to these issues.”

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Gov. Cox signs bill requiring parental approval for teens to join social media sites