Utah’s new social media laws raise constitutional concernsMay 12, 2023 11:31AM ● By Peri Kinder
When Utah’s new social media laws go into effect in March 2024, the state’s residents will face restrictions when trying to access social media platforms. This will be particularly problematic for children under 18.
The Social Media Regulation Act requires age verification for all social media users in the state, and minors will need parental permission to have an account on platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook.
Responding to research about the use of social media and the correlation with increased rates of suicide, depression and self-harm in teens, the Utah legislature passed two laws it hopes will help improve mental health for the the state’s youth. Gov. Spencer Cox appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in March to talk about the unprecedented legislation.
“This is about empowering families, it’s about empowering parents and it’s about holding these social media companies accountable for what we know now,” he said. “We know this is killing our kids. We have to start there.”
But while proponents of the new laws praise the state’s stand on social media, the legislation faces extreme backlash from first amendment groups and constitutional scholars, concerned the laws violate freedom of speech.
Michelle Quist, an attorney with the Utah firm Holland & Hart, is a legal issues expert. She said the laws raise a lot of constitutional questions. With teens using sites to express themselves, to communicate with others and to find support when facing issues like sexual orientation, parental abuse or gender identity, the legislation can effectively cut off those avenues of connection.
“You have constitutional rights and they don’t start at age 18,” Quist said. “Case law has always protected their rights.”
Most people think of TikTok and Instagram as the platforms targeted by the new laws, but it will affect any app that has more than 5 million users. That includes platforms like AllTrails, Canva, Spotify and LinkedIn. Every Utah resident will have to prove they are over 18 to use the sites.
“It’s all-encompassing. We don’t understand how far it will go,” Quist said. “We’ll protect the privacy of our youth by collecting information for every Utah resident using these platforms.”
The legislation also includes a curfew. Between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., children under 18 will not be able to access sites, including messaging apps. Quist said this could be problematic for students who have early morning classes or practices, or for teens who work later than 10:30 p.m. since parents communicate with their children through apps that won’t be accessible.
Parents will also be able to access a child’s account, including all messaging, which raises a concern for privacy issues. Allowing access to parents who are emotionally or physically abusive could have dire consequences.
“Legislation doesn’t start until March 2024 and [legislators] are working out all the problems this year,” Quist said. “I don’t know how to work it out other than to change it.”
Utah might be the first state to impose restrictions on social media, but it won’t be the last. Some states are considering bans for minors under 16 and Texas is considering a law that would not allow anyone under 18 to have social media accounts.
Cox wants social media companies to be held accountable. The new laws don’t allow advertising directed toward minors and prohibits companies from creating addictive programs and designs. It also provides an avenue to seek legal action against social media companies.
He understands there are issues that need to be addressed with the legislation but is optimistic moving forward.
“All the law that is in question here around the first amendment really was established in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, before social media even existed,” Cox said. “We feel very confident that we have a good case here. We expect there will be lawsuits and we feel confident we’re going to prevail.” λ