Utah lawmakers recently proposed a pair of new social media bills. If passed, the two bills could challenge privacy rights and shake up the role families, the government and tech companies play in monitoring children’s online activities.
The bills in question, SB 152 and HB 311, are designed to protect children from the harms that exposure to social media can allegedly cause. They also would introduce a broad range of new requirements, prohibitions and age restrictions for users that raise important questions about digital privacy and would place new burdens on social media companies.
SB 152, sponsored by state Sen. Mike McKell, would require social media companies to “verify the age” of Utah residents, “obtain consent” from a parent or legal guardian before a child under 18 can open or maintain a social media account and ban targeted advertising to minors. In addition, the bill would establish “hours of operation” for youth, prohibit direct messaging for “certain accounts,” and impose financial penalties on companies that violate these rules. It would also authorize a “private right to sue” social media companies for violations, something that would almost certainly produce a chilling effect on the industry.
State Rep. Jordan D. Teuscher’s HB 311 would establish similar requirements when it comes to age verification and parental consent on social media accounts. The bill would further authorize Utah’s Division of Consumer Protection to “investigate complaints” and impose civil penalties on companies for violations. The primary difference between the two bills is that HB 311 would also prohibit social media companies from “using a design or feature that the company knows causes a minor to have an addiction to a social media platform,” an extremely vague provision that would prove difficult to enforce.
The specifics of both bills present a host of potential problems. McKell says he introduced SB 152 to “empower parents” and equip them with the tools to monitor their kids’ online interactions. However, parents can already do just that by utilizing a wide range of commercially available parental control apps such as Aura, Bark, eyeZy, mySpy and Qustodio. These apps allow parents to do everything from monitoring their child’s browsing history and screen time usage to tracking their calls and direct messages and receiving regular updates regarding their internet searches. Many of these apps, like Qustodio, are free to download for almost any device.
Most social media apps already have parental control features built in. Instagram recently introduced adult supervision and age verification features intended to enhance online privacy and safety. These features include the ability to manage a child’s messages and stories and block problematic comments. The photo and video sharing app also offers parents access to the Family Center, an education hub where parents can find additional resources from experts on “building online positive habits.” Similarly, apps like Snapchat allow parents to monitor their child’s online activity by providing them with access to their contacts and giving them an option to report suspicious activity.
Even problematic apps like TikTok allow users to turn on privacy and safety settings, which allow parents to make their child’s account private, as well as restrict their ability to download videos or receive unwanted messages from strangers.
Both new Utah bills willfully ignore the existence of a wide variety of tools parents can already use to monitor their children’s online activity. In doing so, lawmakers also ignore the role that parents, and the family, should play in their children’s lives. It’s not the responsibility of the government or major social media companies to fill this role for them. Attempting to do so invites unintended consequences — such as the likelihood that social media companies will need to collect even more personal information to comply with the law.
A bipartisan group of concerned technology executives recently raised this concern in an opposition letter sent to the Utah Chair of Senate Business and Labor Committee. In the letter, the group explains how SB 152 would force social media companies to create an extensive new age verification system to determine whether each user is old enough to possess an account. This system would necessitate the collection of even “more personal information such as birthdates, addresses and government IDs,” flying in the face of public concern about how companies collect and use personal data. Even if this data were handled extremely carefully, there’s always a chance that a company’s user information could be stolen in a hack, as occurred with Facebook in 2019.
Another possible unintended consequence of SB 152 and HB 311 is that they may lead social media companies to bar minors from using their apps altogether. The high cost of compliance may be too great for many companies to continue doing business with this demographic. Both bills would establish burdensome new rules that may require some social media companies to re-engineer their entire platforms. The inclusion of vague provisions like a “private right of action for any parent or guardian to sue social media companies for their child’s access to social media” would likely open the door to an avalanche of litigation. Changes such as these would make profitability exceedingly difficult and discourage continued market participation. Staying off social media entirely may or may not be a good thing for Utah’s youth, but that should be a decision left up to families.
There’s simply no way of knowing whether SB 152 and HB 311 will be effective at protecting children from social media addiction and other forms of harm that can occur from social media use. Even if they are, the bills still raise serious privacy concerns and transfer significant power away from parents and to social media companies. That doesn’t sound like a fair tradeoff. Lawmakers should instead focus on raising parental awareness about the importance of having frank conversations with their children about social media use.