Michael McGrady: Utah’s new social media laws are extremely dangerous

There is no scientific evidence that social media use is addictive.

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. Cox signed a pair of measures that aim to limit when and where children can use social media and stop companies from luring kids to the sites. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox proclaimed that his administration is “no longer willing to let social media companies continue to harm the mental health of our youth.”

Despite the sentiment, the public’s reaction was tepid at best and failed to coincide with the viewpoints of most Utahns and U.S. voters who believe that the state is committing governmental overreach and chipping away at the rights of parents and guardians. The two bills that were signed into law are SB152 and HB311.

SB152 requires companies that own social media platforms to verify the ages of users in the state to be at least 18 years or older to open a new account for themselves or for their children. HB311 prohibits social media companies from utilizing user experiences and algorithms that somehow cause addictions among minors. This bill grants the right to sue social media for potential damages.

Together, these bills indicate that Utah is, yet again, out of touch with the real world. Amid a rash of controversies, it is unsurprising that Cox would sign into law a bill like SB152. Proposed by the governor’s brother-in-law (the irony isn’t lost on me), Sen. Mike McKell, this particular bill is a product of misinformation and a right-wing moral panic.

According to a thread on Twitter, Cox directed his office to slap together an informational website at socialmedia.utah.gov. In the words of the governor, this new website is structured to track the state’s latest research on so-called “social media addiction” and to provide a portal for parents seeking any civil relief from violaters of these laws.

Unfortunately, mainstream psychology disagrees with the leading concept behind the two laws. In The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, there is no such thing as a social networking addiction, let alone internet, video gaming or pornography addiction. While there is some evidence to suggest that excessive use of a social media platform could be associated with cases of anxiety and depression among younger groups, including minors, there is no diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association at this time.

This also brings the difference between habits and addictions to the forefront. Excessive restrictions on habitual behavior (e.g., social media usage) could misappropriate mental and behavioral health resources that are needed to treat legitimate health issues.

I digress. SB152 and HB311 are built on claims of no scientific value. Lawmakers behind these bills, including HB311 sponsor Rep. Jordan Teuscher, rely on cases of disputed evidence to shift social media and online communications toward an environment that doesn’t account for user privacy rights.

Last month, the Salt Lake Tribune published my column on the language behind SB152. Barring the lack of scientific rigors, the immediate risk is a potential data privacy nightmare. As currently structured, SB152 would require all adults wishing to create new social media accounts or potentially even to maintain their existing access to provide a government identification or a unique credential, like a credit card, to verify their age.

In most Western countries, there are no such laws due to increased data breach risks. Public opinion also reflects this position. A nonprofit research organization at Utah State University, the Center for Growth and Opportunity, conducted a public opinion survey that found 60% of respondents “would not feel comfortable sharing a government identification document, like a driver’s license, with social media companies to verify their age.”

In the same poll, 68% of people were even less likely to share “children’s identification” in order for them to access a social media platform. Data collection of sensitive information could lead to bias, clear violations of the First Amendment and censorship.

So, way to go, Utah! You’ve joined the likes of communist China in requiring a government ID just to watch lame cat videos or pretend to “heart” the photos of your racist cousins in South Carolina. Bravo!

Michael McGrady

Michael McGrady, Monument, Colorado, is a journalist, policy researcher, and commentator. He covers the adult entertainment industry, consumer tech issues, and civil liberties online across the United States and the world. He has family in Utah.