Children in Utah now need parents' permission to use social media

Governor Spencer Cox signs two social media regulation bills. Credit: AP

Children and teens in Utah could lose access to social media if they don't have parental consent to use it under a new laws designed to protect young people from addictive platforms.

Two laws signed by state Governor Spencer Cox also prohibit children under the age of 18 from using social media between certain times and require age verification for anyone wanting to use social media in the state.

The changes will also open the door to lawsuits on behalf of children claiming social media use has harmed them.

Lawmakers hope the new restrictions will prevent children from being lured to apps by addictive features and from having ads promoted to them.

Social media companies are expected to sue before the laws take effect in March 2024.

What are the key things that will be introduced by the laws?

  • Social media companies will need to verify a user's age

  • A curfew locking minors out of their accounts between 10.30pm and 6.30am will be implemented

  • The curfew can only be lifted if approved by a parent

  • Parents will have access to children's posts and private messages

  • Platforms will be banned from using algorithms that may cause addiction to the apps in children

The laws come as countries including the UK, US and other EU nations have banned the use of TikTok on government devices due to fears the app could be a security risk.

The crusade against social media in Utah's Republican-supermajority Legislature is the latest reflection of how politicians’ perceptions of technology companies has changed, including among typically pro-business Republicans.

Tech giants like Facebook and Google have enjoyed massive growth for over a decade, but amid concerns over user privacy, hate speech, misinformation and harmful effects on mental health, politicians have made Big Tech attacks a rallying cry on the campaign trail.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Credit: AP

Utah’s law was signed on the same day TikTok’s chief executive testified before Congress about, among other things, the platform's effects on teenagers’ mental health.

But legislation has stalled on the federal level, pushing states to step in.

Outside of Utah, states including Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana and New Jersey are advancing similar proposals.

California enacted a law last year requiring tech companies to put kids’ safety first by barring them from profiling children or using personal information in ways that could harm children physically or mentally.

The new Utah laws also require parents be given access to their child's accounts.

They outline rules for people who want to sue over harms they claim the apps cause.

If implemented, lawsuits against social media companies involving children under 16 will shift the burden of proof and require social media companies show their products weren’t harmful - not the other way around.

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Social media companies could have to design new features to comply with parts of the laws that prohibit promoting ads to minors and showing them in search results.

Tech companies like TikTok, Snapchat and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, make most of their money by targeting advertising to their users.

The wave of legislation and its focus on age verification has faced pushback from technology companies as well as digital privacy groups known for blasting their data collection practices.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation earlier this month demanded Cox veto the Utah legislation, saying time limits and age verification would infringe on teens’ rights to free speech and privacy.

Verifying every users’ age would empower social media platforms with more data, like the government-issued identification required, they said.

Governor Spencer Cox speaks before signing two social media regulation bills. Credit: AP

If the law is implemented, the digital privacy advocacy group said in a statement, “the majority of young Utahans will find themselves effectively locked out of much of the web."

Tech industry lobbyists called the laws unconstitutional, saying they infringe on people’s right to exercise the First Amendment online.

What’s not clear in Utah's new law and those under consideration elsewhere is how states plan to enforce the new regulations.

Companies are already prohibited from collecting data on children under 13 without parental consent under the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

To comply, social media companies already ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms - but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.

Two years ago, Cox signed legislation that called on tech companies to automatically block porn on mobile phones and tablets sold in the state.

It came after arguments about the dangers it posed to children found a footing among Utah politicians, the majority of whom are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Amid concerns about enforcement, politicians ultimately revised that legislation to prevent it from taking effect unless five other states passed similar laws.

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