Utah lawmakers want social media companies to ditch algorithmic feeds, limit time for minors

Feb 5, 2024, 2:02 PM | Updated: 6:59 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers on Monday unveiled a pair of bills to overhaul the high-profile social media regulations passed during last year’s legislative session with the goal of protecting children and teens from features alleged to be harmful to mental health.

Those regulations established a private right of action for parents to sue platforms over harms to their children, but the latest proposal allows companies to overcome the legal assumption that their products are damaging if they meet certain requirements such as removing algorithmic feeds and limiting a minor’s time spent on the platform.

The proposals come after a pair of lawsuits filed by residents and an industry group claimed the state’s Social Media Regulation Act is unconstitutional. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan — a key architect of last year’s regulations and the sponsor of HB464 this year — told KSL.com the lawsuits were a “bit of a gift” to lawmakers because they outlined many of the concerns opponents of the bill had.

Much of the case law related to social media was established during the early days of the internet, he said, and he believes HB464 and a companion bill sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, will address all of those concerns.

“Our No. 1 goal is to protect minors from the harmful impacts of social media,” Teuscher said.

A spokesman for NetChoice, which represents several tech companies and is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits against Utah’s regulations, said the newly proposed bills still do not meet constitutional muster.

“Unconstitutional laws help no one,” NetChoice Litigation Center director Chris Marchese said in a statement to KSL.com. “Despite going back to the drawing board, Utah is still not on the right side of the Constitution. We look forward to a court hearing our case.”

McKell said litigation from trade organizations against the state’s social media laws has “undermined the credibility of the discussions,” saying many of the companies have failed to negotiate with lawmakers in “good faith” when it comes to protecting minors who use the platforms.

McKell and Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, seemed to recognize that there is no study at this point citing a direct causal link between social media and poor mental health outcomes for minors. However, they argue there’s enough causal evidence to hold up in court.

“Causation is one element of the claim,” Cullimore told reporters Monday. “And basically, what we’re saying is that the amount of correlation that … can be accumulated based on all these studies — even if it’s not direct causation — the amount of correlation is enough to meet the burden of causation under a legal threshold standard.”

When asked if the changes to the law will prevent current litigation from moving forward, McKell said, “I can’t guarantee we’re not going to continue to be sued. But what I will tell you, I think the bills put us in a better legal position moving forward.”

The social media regulations were initially slated to go into effect on March 1, but lawmakers quickly approved a bill last month to push the effective date back to Oct. 1 while the Utah Legislature considers changes.

Here’s a brief summary of what is in each of the new social media bills, according to a fact sheet from the Utah Senate:

SB194: Social Media Regulation Amendments

  • The bill requires companies to use a strict age verification process to make sure minors can’t create accounts without parental consent. McKell, the bill’s sponsor, told KSL.com companies will be required to use an age verification method that is at least 95% accurate, which he said would be “very doable” for platforms.
  • Requires default privacy settings for a minor account holder, which can only be overridden by a parent or guardian. Privacy settings include blocking direct messages, sharing and visibility to minor accounts who aren’t “friends” on the platform.
  • Disables search engine visibility for minor accounts.
  • Disables features that lead to excessive use, including autoplay, infinite scrolling and push notifications.
  • Requires companies to provide parental tools for minor accounts, which include time limits, mandatory breaks, the ability to view time spent on the app and see connected accounts.
  • Prevents social media companies from collecting and selling data on minors without consent from a verifiable parent or legal guardian.

HB464: Social Media Regulation Act Amendments

  • The bill gives minors and their parents or legal guardians the ability to hold social media companies liable for the harm addictive algorithms have caused children through a private right of action.
  • In order to qualify for damages, HB464 requires plaintiffs to demonstrate “that the Utah minor account holder has been diagnosed by a licensed mental health care provider with an adverse mental health outcome; and the adverse mental health outcome was caused by the Utah minor account holder’s excessive use of an algorithmically curated social media service.”
  • Allows social media companies to overcome the assumption that their products cause harm if they obtain parental consent for a minor’s use of the platform, remove features that cause “excessive use,” limit the amount of time a minor can use the platform each day, limit minors’ ability to use the apps overnight and enable chronologically ordered feeds in lieu of algorithmically selected content.

McKell said that under the new bills, the state won’t be requiring government-issued identification to verify the age of users.

“There’s no need to have an ID to meet that 95% accuracy,” he said. “We met with a number of folks who say they’re going to get 98-99% without an actual ID. And I think the social media companies in tech do a pretty good job at that. They’ve been really good at targeting our kids thus far. I think there’s no question they’re going to figure this out.”

Teuscher said many of the features targeted by the bills are based on findings from a U.S. surgeon general advisory issued last year focused on the impact of social media on youth mental health.

McKell shared a number of academic findings to stress the need for action, including research showing that teens who spend more than three hours per day on social media experience double the risk of poor mental health outcomes and that a majority of girls who use Instagram and Snapchat say they’ve been “contacted by a stranger on these platforms in ways that make them uncomfortable.”

He said he’s pleased by the progress the state is making toward tackling the issue, but said he also hopes to see Congress and other states take more action.

“We won’t be done until we see a real shift in kids being protected,” McKell said.

He addressed criticisms that the state is stepping into the role of parents when it comes to monitoring kids’ use of social media.

“This is something we want parents to do. But oftentimes, those tools are hard to use and they’re not being used,” McKell said. “And in a perfect world parents would be in charge entirely. I think we all have kids, grandkids, that understand how to use our phones, how to work around tech better than most of us do. And that’s just the reality of the situation.”

“So, we need some help,” he added.

If approved by lawmakers, the new regulations would go into effect on Oct. 1.

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Utah lawmakers want social media companies to ditch algorithmic feeds, limit time for minors