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Utah governor signs laws requiring parents' consent for minors to use social media

Utah’s regulations come amid ongoing debates about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. Four other states are considering similar measures.
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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two pieces of sweeping social media regulation into law Thursday that require social media companies to get parental consent for minors using their services, making Utah the first state to impose such measures in the U.S. 

Versions of the regulations are being considered in four other states and in several federal proposals in Congress.

The new Utah laws — H.B. 311 and S.B. 152 — require that social media companies verify the age of any Utah resident who makes a social media profile and get parental consent for any minor who wishes to make a profile. They also force social media companies to allow parents to access posts and messages from their child’s account.

The laws also prohibit social media companies from displaying ads to minors, showing minor accounts in search results, collecting information about minors, targeting or suggesting content to minors, or knowingly integrating addictive technologies into social media apps used by minors. They also impose a curfew on the use of social media for minors, locking them out of their social media accounts between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. based on the location of a user’s device, unless adjusted with the consent of a parent. 

Utah’s laws come amid ongoing debates about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health, a link that is widely theorized but remains the subject of academic study. Mental health issues among young people have been labeled a crisis, with particular concerns about the mental health of young women.

Social media companies have until March 1, 2024, to comply with the laws, at which point they become punishable with potential civil and criminal penalties. 

In interviews with NBC News, sponsors of the legislation said that they were motivated by mental health concerns posed by social media use among young people, and that they hope Utah’s new laws serve as inspiration for other states or for Congress.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time in American history where mental health has been so problematic,” said Utah state Sen. Michael McKell. “I hope we see action across the nation.”

McKell said the Utah bills were home-brewed legislation developed in a working group over the last year. 

State Rep. Jordan Teuscher, who co-sponsored one of the Utah bills, said the group heard from representatives and lobbyists from major social media companies like Google and TikTok.

“As you can imagine, the social media companies hired almost all of the major lobbyists in Utah to try to affect the bill,” he said. “They were not very successful in deterring us from our objectives.”

In a statement, a Meta spokesperson said: “​​We want teens to be safe online. We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences. We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks.” The spokesperson added, “We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues.”

Critics of the laws say that they are a form of government overreach that will have effects outside the borders of the state. 

“There’s no way for a platform to know who is or isn’t a full-time Utah resident,” said Ari Cohn, free speech counsel for the tech policy think tank TechFreedom. Cohn said it’s unfeasible to think that social media companies could parse out Utah residents from visitors to the state, or nearby users connecting to the internet via cellphone data networks. 

“The only way the platforms can ensure full compliance will be by actually age verifying everyone,” he said. “And that’s the problem with the state-level bills like this, is that they basically regulate the internet for everyone.”

Cohn added that age verification poses a major risk for security and speech online.

“Age verifying everyone means you no longer have an ability to be anonymous online on social media,” he said. “Think about all the ways that social media is used to criticize powerful people, elected officials, tyrannical governments, or what have you, without fear of retribution.”

Cohn also noted that not every child lives in a nurturing household, and that allowing parents access to kids’ social media history could lead to potential abuse. 

The policies, Cohn said, could even create equity issues by potentially locking out kids whose parents aren’t readily available to provide consent. 

Teuscher said the considerations don’t outweigh his priority of child mental health. 

“When we see hockey stick increases in mental health issues, there is a role of government to step in and say, ‘Hey, is there something that we need to do to protect the health of our citizens and especially the health of minors,’” he said.

So far Utah is the only state to have passed such regulations, which potentially open the door for social media companies to shut out users from the state if the companies aren’t willing to comply with the rules.

Outside of Utah, legislation that includes social media parental consent for some minors is being considered in four states: Ohio, Minnesota, Connecticut and Arkansas. 

Currently there is no central organization providing draft language to the states, so each state is considering slightly different rules with which social media companies would need to comply. Several of the states, for instance, would only require parental consent for children under age 16.

McKell said those potential differences could actually be a good thing.

“That’ll force Congress to the table,” he said.

There are currently two pieces of legislation in Congress that would restrict minor access to social media. If signed into law, they would create minimum ages for social media use, without the option of parental consent.