‘Our kids cannot handle this’: Does social media need government regulation?

Sen. Mike McKell’s bill to regulate social media companies and minors’ access to those apps received unanimous approval in committee.

Age verification for all social media users in Utah and parental control for minors might be on track to become a reality as a new bill to regulate the apps moves to the Senate floor.

SB152, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, would require social media companies to obtain the consent of a parent or guardian before Utahns under age 18 could maintain or open an account. It also would impose other restrictions, such as prohibiting direct messaging with certain accounts, hiding a minor’s account in search results, blocking ads for minors and limiting hours of access.

The legislation also would require companies to provide a parent or guardian access to the content and interactions of an account held by a minor and would establish fines if companies don’t comply.

There already are systems in place to verify identities, McKell said Tuesday in his presentation to the Senate Business and Labor Committee, pointing out that millions of people use it for dating, gambling and pharmaceuticals, so the technology is already available through third parties

“We want to empower parents,” he said. “We want to give them the tools necessary so they can monitor the social media accounts for their kids.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, right, is congratulated by Salt Lake County Council member Aimee Winder Newton and Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan after the presentation of SB152 before the Senate Business and Labor Committee in the Senate Building, Jan. 31, 2023. The bill was passed out of the committee favorably.

This is not the first time social media moderation has been a priority for McKell.

In 2022, the senator unsuccessfully sponsored a bill that would have required social media platforms to inform Utah account holders of their moderation practices and when those practices were enforced.

And, in 2021, he introduced legislation that would allow the state to seek monetary penalties if companies did not adequately explain why they removed or moderated a post. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox vetoed that measure.

Then, the regulations raised questions on how the state would define social media and how it would effectively determine whether users are located in Utah.

But, this time, Aimee Winder Newton — head of Cox’s new Office of Families and a Salt Lake County Council member — joined McKell’s presentation, endorsing the bill and restating the state’s plans to sue social media companies for their impact on Utah’s youth mental health.

Winder Newton correlated data on increasing feelings of hopelessness, lack of sleep and depression among Utah youths to the takeoff of social media.

“The worst part is social media companies know their product is toxic for teens,” she said. “They design their product to be addictive.”

The bill also drew support from the Utah attorney general’s office, which saw it as a way of protecting kids from online predators.

“There’s no more impactful bill,” said Ben Horsley, spokesperson for Granite School District, who talked about how often the district received reports of inappropriate content among students. “Our kids cannot handle this. Our parents do not know how to manage it.”

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While Emilie Daly, legislative director of Utah Parents United, expressed her support for the bill, she also hoped there was room to further discuss its age verification portion. Maybe, she said, that could be done through a state-provided identity certification number. “So then the only information that is going to those social media companies or third parties is the age verification and not the driver license number.”

Opponents, though, said that the bill could backfire and bring more issues in the future.

“With this, will we really be creating responsible teenagers and adults if the government is just taking over and letting us not choose for ourselves?” 13-year-old Lucy Loewen testified, explaining that her parents use already available parental control tools to regulate the apps she can access and the time she uses social media.

Others raised concerns about the possibility of financial and personal data leaks, especially taking into account that the bill implies the collection of the age and address of kids, which could represent a concern for child safety if breached.

“Big Tech hasn’t really done a good job at protecting people’s identities,” said Utah County resident Cristy Bulkley. “And so uploading my identity to prove that I’m not a child and having social media have that, with all of the havoc that has gone on with Big Tech, seems like a very irresponsible thing for the state of Utah to do.”

SB152 unanimously passed the committee and will move forward to a second and third vote on the Senate floor at a future date. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, will sponsor it in the Utah House.