Utah Law Could Curb Use of TikTok and Instagram by Children and Teens

Gov. Spencer J. Cox of Utah signed a sweeping social media bill on Thursday afternoon that could dramatically limit youth access to apps like TikTok and Instagram, potentially upending how many minors in the state use the internet.

The Utah Legislature passed the measure this month, despite opposition from tech industry groups and civil liberties experts. It is the first state law in the nation that will prohibit social media services from allowing users under 18 to have accounts without the explicit consent of a parent or guardian.

The new measure will also require social networks to give Utah parents access to their children’s posts, messages and responses. 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 will be able to modify.

Michael K. McKell, a Republican member of the Utah Senate who sponsored the bill, said the statute was intended to address a “mental health crisis” among American teenagers as well as protect younger users from bullying and child sexual exploitation.

“We think social media is a contributing factor,” Senator McKell said in a phone interview on Thursday. “We want to tackle that issue.”

While the measure may come as welcome news for many parents, civil liberties experts and tech industry groups said it raised significant privacy and free speech concerns. Some warned that the new law, which will require social networks to verify users’ ages and obtain parental consent for those under 18, could cut off young people in Utah from major online platforms and infringe on parental rights to decide how their children used the internet.

Governor Cox also signed a second bill on Thursday that will prohibit social media companies from employing features or design techniques that could cause a minor to form an “addiction” to their online platforms.

The Utah measures come at a moment of heightened public concern and political action over powerful social media algorithms that may entice young people to spend hours online.

Over the last few years, popular social networking services have come under scrutiny for recommending content on self-harm 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 to young people have attracted widespread, bipartisan support. In his State of the Union address last month, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass legislation restricting how tech companies may track teenagers and children online.

State legislatures have already introduced a number of bills intended to limit mental health and safety risks that social networks, multiplayer video games and other online services may pose to some children and teenagers. Last year, California enacted a sweeping online safety law that will require many social networks, video games and other services to install the equivalent of seatbelts and airbags for younger users.

Among other things, the California measure will require such services to turn on the highest privacy settings by default for users under 18. It also requires social networks and other services to turn off features by default that could pose risks to younger people, like “friend finders” that allow adult strangers to contact children.

But the Utah law far outstrips the California online safety effort, imposing broad constraints and enabling parental surveillance that could alter how many teenagers in Utah use the internet. Sarah Coyne, a professor of child development at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, warned that 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 youth, such as L.G.B.T.Q. kids, use social media in some really important ways to find belonging and support, especially when they don’t have family support,” said Dr. Coyne, who has studied how time spent on social media affects adolescents.

“So if you’ve got a 17-year-old who is really struggling with mental health turning to social media to find a place to belong, and their parents are cutting it off or looking at their messages, that can have a really significant negative impact,” she said.

Senator McKell said that the bill was intended to help parents protect their children online and that potential benefits far outweighed potential drawbacks. In addition to requiring parental consent, the bill will prohibit social networks from allowing strangers to message young people, ban targeted advertising and limit companies’ collection and use of young people’s personal data.

“If a parent wants to give their kids free rein online, under our bill they are going to have the ability to do that,” Senator McKell said. “But we want parents to be involved in the process, and we’re not going to apologize for that.”

The Utah measure, which applies to social networks with at least five million account holders worldwide, is scheduled to take effect on March 1, 2024.

The Arkansas Legislature has introduced a similar bill that would require social network platforms to verify users’ ages and obtain explicit parental consent for people under 18. A bill introduced in Texas is even more stringent: It would ban social media accounts for minors.

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