Utah first state to pass social media regulations aimed at protecting minors

Gov. Spencer Cox, who signed the bills on Thursday, said the state is prepared for a legal fight over the tech company regulations.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox signs two social media regulation bills during a ceremony at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023.

Utah is the first state in the nation to begin restricting how minors can use social media apps. Gov. Spencer Cox signed a pair of bills on Thursday that will regulate when and how minors in Utah can use of social media and aims to stop those companies from designing addicting features.

Those new laws will likely lead to a protracted legal fight with the tech industry over privacy and First Amendment issues.

SB152 from Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, will slap several regulations on social media companies on March 1, 2024. Those rules include:

  • Age verification for all users before they can open or maintain an account.

  • Permission from parents before a minor can open a social media account.

  • Restricts minors’ use of social media from 10:30 pm to 6:30 am unless a parent changes those settings. The platforms must also ensure that children are unable to bypass those restrictions.

  • Give parents the ability to access a minor’s account, including all posts and private messages.

  • Limits what personal information a social media platform can collect from minors.

HB311 from Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, blocks social media companies from implementing a “design or feature” that causes a minor to become addicted to using the platform. The companies could face fines or lawsuits for violations. Like McKell’s bill, those regulations will begin on March 1, 2024.

The legislation arose from concerns over how social media contributes to declining youth mental health.

“This is something that is killing our kids,” Cox, who is one of the most prolific users of Twitter in Utah’s political sphere, told reporters at a March 16 news conference. “It’s the addictive qualities of social media that are intentionally being placed by these companies to get our kids addicted, and they know it’s harming them.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox applauds after signing two social media regulation bills during a ceremony at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023.

While social media may play a role in the declining mental health of youth, especially in teenage girls, it’s not the biggest threat currently facing children and adolescents in America.

Firearms recently became the number one cause of death for children, surpassing motor vehicle accidents and other injuries for the first time ever. Most of the firearms-related legislation approved in the 2023 Legislature expanded gun rights, including a bill that says the state will not enforce federal laws seeking to restrict or ban firearms.

McKell refused to answer when asked why the concern for the safety of children behind the social media legislation did not extend to firearms.

“We’re talking about a social media bill today. If you want to join the Legislature and pass a gun bill, more power to you,” McKell said.

The new regulations have drawn plenty of criticism from the tech sector ranging from concerns over collecting personal information to verify the age of users to constitutional issues.

Larry Magid, the CEO of Connect Safely, a nonprofit organization focused on online safety, says requiring users to hand over IDs and home addresses presents a massive risk to data security.

“SB 152 would require companies to keep a ‘record of any submissions provided under the requirements,’ which means there would not only be databases of all social media users but also of users under 18, which could be hacked by criminals or foreign governments seeking information on Utah children and adults. And, in case you think that’s impossible, there was a breach in 2006 of a database of children that was mandated by the State of Utah to protect them from sites that displayed or promoted pornography, alcohol, tobacco and gambling. No one expects a data breach, but they happen on a regular basis,” Magid argued in an opinion piece.

It’s not just government IDs that these companies would be required to collect. Mandating parental consent before a minor can use social media sites could mean uploading a copy of the child’s birth certificate to verify the parent-child relationship.

Technology organizations have complained the age verification requirement would likely lead to a defacto nationwide requirement because there’s no way for a company to know if a user is in Utah before they sign up.

Future legal fight

There are also worries that limiting the use of social media would violate the First Amendment rights of both adults and minors.

Cox acknowledged that a legal challenge to the new restrictions would likely be forthcoming, but he’s confident the state will prevail.

“Will there be legal challenges? Absolutely. We understand that,” Cox told reporters earlier this month. “I’m not going to back down from a potential legal challenge.”

A legal challenge may not take place immediately, as the regulations enacted by the two bills don’t kick in until next March.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher says that the delay is on purpose as it gives lawmakers time to negotiate with social media companies and hammer out any changes in the 2024 legislative session.

“We have committed to working with those social media companies during the interim to make sure we can come up with rules and regulations that work for everybody,” Teuscher said.

Teuscher added he expects the restrictions passed by Utah will prompt other states to follow suit and approve similar legislation, which he hopes will prompt Congress to step in and enact nationwide regulations for minors using social media.