‘We are no match for big tech’: Why these Utah parents are pleading with lawmakers for help

The Utah Legislature is still refining their latest revision on a pair of bills they say are aimed at protecting kids from the harms of social media.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aimee Winder Newton, left, senior advisor to Gov. Spencer Cox and director of the Office of Families attends the House judiciary committee alongside grieving parents Karl and Britney Obray about HB464 Social Media Regulation Act Amendments on Wednesday, February. 14, 2024 at the Capitol. The Obray family testified that social media led their teenage son Dexton to commit suicide.

Pleas to protect children, coupled with heart-rending stories of the impacts of social media on young users, punctuated parallel legislative hearings to revamped regulations governing how youth interact with social media platforms.

In January, Utah lawmakers rushed to pass legislation delaying the effective date of social media regulations passed by lawmakers last year that they said were aimed at protecting Utah kids. The move, which came in response to a pair of federal lawsuits, was a tacit admission by the Legislature that the law approved last year would likely not survive that legal challenge.

The overhauled social media laws, SB194 and HB464, retain some of the concepts from last year’s legislation, but there are some significant changes. Users under 18 no longer require permission from a parent or guardian to access some large social media sites. Instead, social media companies must place strict guardrails around how young account holders interact with content on those platforms. It also restricts what kind of data those companies can collect from those accounts and how that data is used.

“These platforms are massive data mining operations that wrap themselves in the Constitution,” McKell said during his lengthy presentation to lawmakers on Thursday.

One minor but significant change to McKell’s proposal centers on how companies will determine whether users are minors. Instead of “age verification,” SB194 now requires platforms to use an “age assurance” method that is 95% accurate. Iain Corby, Executive Director of the UK-based Age Verification Providers Association (AVPA), explained that, instead of uploading government-issued IDs, social media companies could implement other methods like biometric facial scans or using artificial intelligence to estimate a user’s age based on their online behavior.

“Age verification tends to start with a particular date of birth, document, or database. Meanwhile, facial age estimation or voiceprint age estimation can be accurate within a year and a half. That entire process can take place on your computer or your smartphone without your image or voice ever leaving your control,” Corby said.

Corby said those methods are more resistant to hacking than using documents to verify a user’s age. McKell’s bill requires whatever method a platform chooses to implement to have a 95% accuracy rate.

To bolster their case that social media causes significant harm to the mental well-being of children, McKell and Teuscher played a recorded message from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. In the video, Murthy explained he was not endorsing the proposed legislation but applauded Utah lawmakers for taking up the issue.

“I am concerned that social media has now become one of the drivers of the youth mental health crisis. The time for half-measures on this issue has passed. We need urgent, comprehensive action to protect our kids from the harms of social media,” Murthy said.

HB464, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, also allows companies to skirt liability for alleged social media-related harms if they place time limits on minors’ use of their platforms and disables “engagement-driven design elements,” like autoplay and targeted content.

Teuscher’s proposal includes a private right of action for minors, meaning they can sue social media companies for mental health problems they experience that tie back to their platforms. The representative described that measure as one that could be more effective at eliciting changes lawmakers want to see from social media companies than the laws passed last year.

“So what you see is a new vehicle that hasn’t been tested in any other court to allow for this private right of action that will give a stick and a carrot to try to get some substantive change that can help Utah minors now, and that’s what I think is more important than trying to just fight things out in the court,” Teuscher told the House Judiciary Committee.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liddy Johnson, 15, gives testimony about the adverse effects of social media on her mental well being during the HB464 Social Media Regulation Act Amendments, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, February. 14, 2024.

At a committee hearing for Teuscher’s HB464, in-person attendees lined up to support the tweaked legislation. Among them were a young woman who described developing an “addiction” to social media at 12 years old and parents who said their teenage son took his life after seeing suicide-related videos on social media.

Liddy Johnson, who is the daughter of the founder of the conservative group Utah Parents United, sat in front of both House and Senate committees supporting the social media restrictions.

“My parents took all the precautions like limited screen time on TikTok, you know, everything that people said you needed to do,” Johnson told the House committee, with her mother, Corinne Johnson, seated behind her. “But it didn’t work. I found my way around the restrictions on my phone, and I spent hours doing nothing but mindless scrolling.”

Liddy’s mother, Corrine Johnson of Utah Parents United, welcomed government intervention.

“As a general rule, we don’t like the government getting involved in the day-to-day parenting we do with our kids. This is a big exception to that rule,” Johnson said. “It is abundantly clear that despite our best efforts, we are no match for big tech. We are no match for the addictive algorithms that enslave our young children, destroy their confidence, tear down their identities, and cause anxiety, depression, and suicide. We can’t fight this battle alone.”

Brittney and Karl Obray pleaded with lawmakers to vote yes on the regulations. They blame social media as the primary reason their son, Dexton, ended his own life in 2022.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents Karl and Britney Obray bring a photo of their teenage son Dexton as they give testimony to the adverse effects of social media that they say led their son to commit suicide. The parents spoke during the House judiciary committee about HB464 Social Media Regulation Act Amendments, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, February. 14, 2024.

“A while after we allowed social media, Dexton came to me and said he was struggling. He didn’t know what was making him sad and depressed. And at the time, we didn’t either,” Brittney Obray said. “He was always such a happy kid. He had a good life. Lots of friends popular in school, loving parents and siblings. It just didn’t make sense to us or him.”

“I took all the precautions with my kids. I put a one-hour timer on social media. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter. Because that one hour a day addicted my son,” Karl Obray, Dexton’s father, said.

Representatives from two national advocacy organizations tuned into the House meeting to oppose Utah’s most recent social media proposals — but for opposite reasons.

David Cochrane, from the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, told lawmakers that the organization was disappointed that they were considering “watering down” social media regulations passed last year, and said Utah should instead be building on those laws, for which the state faces multiple lawsuits.

“Utah will gain nothing by making these concessions,” Cochrane said. “Big tech lawyers will continue to fight the law in court.”

Tech industry group NetChoice — which represents several social media companies and a plaintiff in one of the federal lawsuits — argued that the measure allowing a private right of action will be twisted to go beyond the Legislature’s intent and that including that “could be seen as an attempt to financially punish companies for trying to protect themselves in court,” said State and Federal Affairs Deputy Director Zach Lilly.

Both bills were approved unanimously by the respective committees on Wednesday. They now move to the House and Senate floor.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liddy Johnson, 15, is embraced by grieving father Karl Obray following their testimony during the HB464 Social Media Regulation Act Amendments, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, February. 14, 2024. Johnson testified how she had thoughts of suicide due to the adverse effects of social media and Obray lost his son Dexton to suicide after he became addicted to dark suicidal content.