Utah clamps down on social media for teens

On Thursday, March 23, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed a sweeping bill that will radically change the way social media are used by under-18 residents of the state. The bill requires social media outlets to verify the age of users, prohibits the use of social media by anyone under 18 from 10:30 PM to 6:30 AM, and allows users to sue companies for alleged harm caused by social media, among other things. The bill's provisions won't take effect until a year from now, and TikTok and other social-media firms whose products are popular with teens are widely expected to file lawsuits charging that the new bill abridges First Amendment rights.

Back in June of 2022, we reported on Christine Rosen's call for a total ban of social media for anyone under 16. By then it was obvious that teenagers using social media could be seriously harmed by it. Even if we set aside the isolated cases of social-media-enabled bullying and induced suicides, numerous academic studies have shown a positive correlation between certain types of social media use and "ill-being", as one meta-analysis study puts it. Especially for those teens who become addicted to the extent that their online activities hamper their daily lives, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation all increase above the average population's rates.

At the time, Rosen's call was something of an outlier, but in the conservative, pro-family state of Utah, concern has turned into legislative action. Besides imposing a curfew, insisting on age verification, and allowing lawsuits, the legislation also requires that parents be able to control their teens' access to social media. In an Associated Press report on the new law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-privacy advocacy group, was quoted as saying that "the majority of young Utahns will find themselves effectively locked out of much of the web." And lobbyists for social-media tech companies decried the law as violating First Amendment rights of free speech.

My two cents on this are that our Federal system allows states to try things that might be unwise to experiment with nationwide. But if something goes badly wrong with a new law that only one state passes, the damage is limited and other states can learn from the mistakes that were made.

I'm sure there will be problems implementing the Utah social-media law. For one thing, TikTok, Facebook, and the other major social-media players will lead a charge of lawyers to have it declared unconstitutional or void it in some other way, possibly with a case that makes it to the U. S. Supreme Court. Such a game should be played with caution, however, because the Court's conservative makeup these days may not be favorable to causes that formerly would have been a slam-dunk.

In the meantime, I think it is refreshing that legislators in Utah have tried to place the responsibility for supervising teenagers back where it belongs: in the hands of parents.

We can make an analogy between social-media use and the use of the family car. Back when most teenagers desperately wanted to drive and got their driver licenses at the earliest possible moment, Mom and Dad were the keepers of the keys. Driving was a potentially dangerous activity, and parents exercised judgment over whether Junior was mentally and emotionally ready to drive, and how much, and where. Such privileges could be revoked at any moment for bad behavior, which furnished a powerful lever of discipline that was entirely within reasonable child-rearing bounds.

Now, of course, kids just call Uber on their smartphones if they want to go somewhere, but usually they don't—social media is much more interesting than reality, or at least some teens act like it is. The meta-analysis I cited above cautioned that not all types of social media are bad. Kids simply staying in touch with other individual kids and posting funny or positive things does no harm, and can even contribute to well-being. But the disruptive downside of social media use in teens has been so obvious for so long, that it is high time one of our laboratories of democracy should do an experiment in restricting it to see what effect it has on rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

The progressive push toward radical autonomy of the individual, teenage or otherwise, dictates that old-fashioned notions such as parental discipline and control get thrown out the window. As studies have shown, however, the teenage brain has a long way to go before it produces mature adult-style reasoned decisions (and some just never make it at all). For teens' own safety, parents need to supervise what teens do with their time, and increasingly that means social media. While there are loopholes in every law, Utah's attempt to rein in the unbridled access to teens (and younger people) that social media companies have enjoyed up to this point should be applauded. There are really some things more important than the free market, and even the First Amendment, when it comes to the raising of kids. And the Utah law recognizes this.

State legislatures can often be wound around the little finger of lobbyists, and we will see what happens when multibillion-dollar international corporations throw their legal weight behind a concerted effort to overturn Utah's restrictions on social media. It will be a test of integrity for the political system, as money and cultural influence seem to prevail over all kinds of better principles these days. But maybe Utah can resist the onslaught, and show the rest of the country what can be done about the issue of social-media abuse in teens, a problem that has become a serious public-health crisis. The next year or so will tell us whether state laws can do anything about it, or whether Big Tech can steamroller over the stated preferences of parents and legislators without regard to their feelings or the well-being of their children.


This article has been republished with permission from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics.


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