Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and I have a few things in common. For one, we were part of the last generation that grew up without social media in our lives.
Second, neither of us is a trained child psychologist or researcher on the subject of social media’s impacts on kids’ mental health. Nonetheless, Cox has made his view on the topic very clear, signing legislation earlier this month declaring war on social media companies.
“This is something that is killing our kids,” Cox said recently. “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.”
The reality, however, is more nuanced than the governor would have us believe, according to Sarah Coyne, a professor of human development and researcher in the field of media impacts on children.
“The findings you’re hearing in news media are pretty overblown, whereas most of us who actually study this recognize it’s incredibly complex and the research just isn’t there that [social media] causes this,” she told me recently.
A recent study of students in the Netherlands, for example, found that social media either had no impact on the well-being or a positive impact on 90% of the adolescents, she said.
Other research has indicated that a child who is depressed may turn to social media to feel more connected to their peers.
Proponents of the Utah legislation, like the governor, point to a rising suicide rate since the advent of social media — and that really is a terrible tragedy, one that deserves our focus — but ignore that the adolescent suicide rates were actually higher before the internet even existed. Of course, one kid taking their own life is too many, but context matters here.
The emotional well-being of the state’s youth is such an incredibly complex amalgamation of factors that it’s simply impossible to blame, say, Instagram for making kids depressed or anxious.
Yet we’re sold a simplistic narrative, that social media is “killing our kids.” And it feels familiar, as if TikTok and Instagram follow rock music and violent video games as the latest source of society’s ills.
But even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Cox is right and social media is doing significant harm to young people, what do we do about it?
We know what Cox and the Utah Legislature have chosen to do: The bills he signed require verified parental permission for anyone under the age of 18 to get access to social media; give parents unfettered access to their children’s posts and private messages; and proposes a curfew.
Parents who believe social media companies are violating the law are able to sue the companies for damages and attorneys fees.
And, perhaps admitting they don’t quite have their arms wrapped around the issue, the governor and Legislature are waiting a year and through another legislative session to enact the law. If we knew social media was actually killing our children, wouldn’t we want to stop those companies yesterday?
The legislation also raises serious constitutional issues, primarily among them, whether the state has a compelling interest in restricting the free speech and privacy rights of young people and treating kindergartners the same as some high school seniors.
Obviously, this will end up in court where there’s a good chance it will be struck down. Assuming it isn’t, the implementation raises serious problems on its own.
And I should note here that nobody really knows age verification will work since it leaves that up to the Utah Department of Commerce to figure out. One possibility is requiring parents to upload a driver license or some other identifying material to the social media company.
“For every user in Utah, that’s really going to be an uphill battle to explain,” said Taylor Barkley, the director of technology and innovation at Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity.
In January, the CGO did a survey of U.S. adults that found 60% disagreed with having to share their identification to access social media, while 68% opposed having to share their child’s identification. Opposition was stronger among Republicans than Democrats.
It’s understandable why people are uneasy. On one hand, Utah Republicans are up-in-arms about TikTok supposedly being a spy tool of the Chinese Communist Party, and on the other are potentially asking every adult citizen to upload a license or other identifying information in order to watch talking dogs or learn the latest dance fad.
We’re supposed to trust these companies to gather the information and not retain it or use it in some other way.
What’s more, Barkley said the media platforms would presumably be required to authenticate that the permission is actually coming from an actual parent — not an ID lifted from a wallet or provided by another relative.
All of this assumes that kids, especially teens, can’t figure out how to use a virtual private network to make it look like they’re logging in from some other state in order to get around the restrictions.
It’s odd to have the same small-government state legislators who argued that parents know what’s best for their kids when it comes to school vouchers eager to dictate to parents how their children can use social media — right down to a proposed 10:30 bedtime.
Maybe Cox can raise your kids better than you can.
If we accept that social media is a problem, there are reasonable steps we could have taken. Coyne notes that, because social media isn’t going away, the state could have invested in quality education starting at a young age in hopes “that they become really healthy users of technology and they’ll thrive in this environment.”
The government could push for more transparency in the algorithms, Coyne said, so researchers like her could help ensure they’re built to foster good mental health.
The state could have promoted some of the parental control tools that are already available, Barkley said. That includes tools that let parents block websites, track social media and impose a “lights-out” time all on their own.
Sure, this legislation gets lots of headlines. But there’s a good chance it’s unconstitutional, may not be workable if it passes muster, infringes on the privacy of every Utahn in the state and could actually hurt the kids it seeks to help.