Utah Gov. Spencer Cox appeared on “Meet the Press” Sunday to defend two new state laws that will restrict the use of social media by children and teens.

In the face of large increases in depression, anxiety and suicide among teens, Utah is the first state to try to limit access to social media by minors. Several other states are considering similar laws.

On the show, Cox said he expects the state to face legal challenges over the new laws, and said he ultimately hopes Congress will pass nationwide limits on social media use. 

In his introduction to Cox, host Chuck Todd pointed out that Congress has been talking about limiting access to or even banning some social media apps, but Utah was the first to act.

The new laws include the Utah Social Media Regulation Act, which puts sweeping limits on teens’ access to social media, including by requiring parental consent before they can open accounts, by banning overnight use and by giving parents access to their children’s accounts.

Another new law would prohibit social media companies from using designs that are addictive to teens.

Cox defended the laws, pointing to a steep rise in depression, anxiety and suicide among teens, especially teen girls, as creating the impetus for the laws.

“There is no other industry where we allow 14-year-olds to contract with major corporations to use their data for anything they want. We just don’t do this,” he said. “We’re going to look back 10 years from now and think, what did we do? We destroyed a generation of kids with this stuff.” 

Deseret News contributors and social scientists Brad Wilcox and Janet Erickson, along with scholars Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, have been raising awareness about the potential impacts of social media and screen time on adolescent mental health.

In an interview with the Deseret News last year, Jonathan Haidt recommended parenting focused on “more free range, less social media.” And Wilcox visited Utah during the legislative session and met with Cox to discuss proposed legislative action.

But, on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Todd raised questions about the legality of the Utah measures, pointing out there are “a lot of constitutional questions about this.”

Several special interest groups with links to tech companies have raised concerns about Utah’s new laws, as have groups that defend against First Amendment limits. During the interview, Todd displayed a quote by Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, an advocacy group that receives funding from the tech sector, that first appeared in The Washington Post.

“These bills radically undermine the constitutional and human rights of young people in Utah,” Greer said. “What about in situations where there is a custody battle or allegations of abuse, and an abusive parent is attempting to obtain access to a child’s social media messages?” 

As an attorney himself, Cox said while he expects there will be legal challenges to the laws, he is “very confident” the state will be able to defeat those challenges, saying his administration worked with experts across the country as well as Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to craft the legislation.

Because the laws don’t go into effect for over a year, the state has time to write regulations that protect users’ privacy while also responding to the crisis in mental health among teens, he said.

The rate of depression in teens has risen significantly since the advent of smartphones and social media, and has doubled among teen girls since 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When asked by Todd how the state will implement the new laws, and whether the state will have to hire more employees, Cox said the state’s Department of Commerce will be tasked with overseeing enforcement of the law and conceded it will be difficult.

“We don’t expect that we’re going to be able to prevent every young person from getting around this,” he said. “Kids are really smart.” 

Ultimately, Cox said, he would like these problems to be addressed at the federal level.

“I would prefer that Congress act,” he said. “That’s where this should happen, and I think it will.” 

During the interview, Todd pointed out the difficulty of implementing the age verification requirement, saying it’s illegal for minors to look at pornography, but “it’s been impossible to keep that off the Internet or to keep kids from looking at it.” He asked Cox why he thinks the new laws will work.

These laws won’t be foolproof, Cox said, and indicated the state will work with social media companies during the rule-making process.

Todd also asked Cox how he planned to prove that social media is addictive, but Cox said he didn’t have to, but rather social media companies will have to prove they are not harming young people with their products.

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Several scholars and lawmakers have compared social media use to tobacco use, with the expectation that legal challenges could force changes in the way social media companies operate.

State Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, one of the sponsors of the Utah legislation, told the Deseret News that he sees the comparison between tobacco and social media because social media “has a catastrophic impact” on teens’ mental health.

On “Meet the Press,” Todd pointed out adults may also be experiencing mental health challenges due to social media.

“We’re allowing the tech world to do a giant experiment on the human brain. Frankly, it’s not just about teens,” said Todd.  

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