Governor Spencer J. Cox of Utah on Thursday afternoon signed a sweeping social media bill that could dramatically limit young people’s access to apps like TikTok and Instagram, which could upend the number of minors in the state who use the Internet.
The Utah legislature passed the measure this month, despite opposition from tech industry groups and civil liberties experts. This is the first state law in the nation that will prohibit social media services from allowing users under the age of 18 to have accounts without the express consent of a parent or guardian.
The new measure will also require social networks to allow parents in Utah to access their children’s posts, messages and replies. And it will require social media services to block Utah minors from accessing their accounts from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., a default setting that only a parent or guardian can change.
Michael K. McKell, a Republican member of the Utah Senate who sponsored the bill, said the law was intended to address a “mental health crisis” among American teens as well as protect young users from bullying and sexual exploitation of children.
“We think social media is a contributing factor,” Sen. McKell said in a phone interview Thursday. “We want to tackle this problem.”
While the measure may be good news for many parents, civil liberties experts and tech industry groups said it raises significant privacy and free speech concerns. Some have warned that the new law, which will require social networks to verify the age of users and obtain parental consent for those under 18, could cut Utah’s young people off from major online platforms and undermine the parental rights to decide how their children use the Internet. .
Governor Cox also signed a second bill Thursday that will ban social media companies from employing features or design techniques that could cause a minor to develop an “addiction” to their online platforms.
Utah’s measures come at a time of heightened public concern and political action over powerful social media algorithms that could entice young people to spend hours online.
In recent years, popular social networking services have come under scrutiny for recommending self-harm content to young people and exposing children to predators. Instagram, TikTok and other companies have responded by increasing controls for parents, including time limits and messaging restrictions.
Efforts to minimize online risks for young people have drawn broad bipartisan support. In his State of the Union address last month, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass legislation restricting how tech companies can track teens and children online.
State legislatures have already introduced a number of bills aimed at limiting the mental health and safety risks that social media, multiplayer video games and other online services can pose to some children and teens. Last year, California enacted a sweeping online safety law that will force many social networks, video games and other services to install the equivalent of seatbelts and airbags for young users.
Among other things, the California measure will require these services to enable the highest privacy settings by default for users under 18. It also forces social media and other services to disable features by default that could pose risks to younger people, such as “friend”. finders” that allow adult strangers to contact children.
But Utah’s law far exceeds California’s online safety effort, imposing broad constraints and allowing for parental oversight that could change the number of Utah teens using the internet. Sarah Coyne, professor of child development at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, warned the measure could inadvertently boomerang, exacerbating youth mental health issues by cutting off vulnerable young people from important sources of information and support.
“We know that marginalized young people, such as LGBTQ children, use social media in very important ways to find belonging and support, especially when they lack family support,” said Dr Coyne, who studied time spent on social media. the media affects teenagers.
“So if you have a 17-year-old who is really struggling with mental health issues and is turning to social media to find a place to belong, and his parents are cutting him off or looking at their posts, that can have an effect very significant negative impact,” she said.
Senator McKell said the bill was intended to help parents protect their children online and the potential benefits far outweighed the potential harms. In addition to requiring parental consent, the bill will prohibit social networks from allowing strangers to send messages to young people, ban targeted advertising and limit companies’ collection and use of young people’s personal data. .
“If a parent wants to give their children free rein online, under our bill they will have the ability to do so,” said Senator McKell. “But we want parents to be involved in the process, and we’re not going to apologize for that.”
Utah’s measure, which applies to social networks with at least five million account holders worldwide, is set to go into effect on March 1, 2024.
The Arkansas Legislature introduced a similar bill that would require social media platforms to verify the age of users and obtain explicit parental consent for those under 18. A bill introduced in Texas is even stricter: it would ban social media accounts for minors.