Utah’s new social media regulations, passed by the 2023 Utah Legislature and recently signed into law, have their roots in research by Jonathan Haidt at New York University, Jean Twenge at San Diego State University and W. Bradford Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies and the University of Virginia.

The three have been among the most earnest and active in pointing out harmful effects linked to social media — especially on teenage girls. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found 6 in 10 teenage girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 and that 30% of females in ninth through 12th grade have “seriously contemplated suicide.” 

The researchers have noted impacts linked to social media that include social isolation and loneliness, depression, elevated anxiety and even suicidal thoughts, among others.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsored SB152, “Social Media Regulation Amendments.” The new law will require social media companies to verify the age of anyone in Utah who uses their platforms, the goal being to ensure that minors cannot sign up for and use accounts without a parent’s permission. It also grants parents or guardians access to monitor their child’s accounts and bans social media use between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. by minors without an OK from a parent.

HB311, “Social Media Usage Amendments,” sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, bans the use by social media companies of algorithms or other features that can cause a minor to become addicted to the platform. And it creates both a way to address breaches of the requirement and a private right to sue for harm.

State officials say they’re proud to lead the charge as the first state to impose restrictions.

“Gov. Cox is incredibly concerned with youth mental health and as we looked for family friendly solutions, it became clear that empowering parents with more tools was key. These tools include requiring parental permission for minors to have a social media account, the option for parents to adjust the time that children can be on their social media, and giving parents the ability to file a complaint or lawsuit if their children are harmed,” said Aimee Winder Newton, who directs Utah’s relatively new Office of Family Policy.

She said she worked with lawmakers and the researchers to figure out the risks to youths from social media and what policy changes might help curb those risks.

Potential dangers

In a conference on teen mental health and technology held in Salt Lake City in January, Cox pointed out that studies correlate poor mental health outcomes —  anxiety, depression and self-harm, for instance — to social media and their platforms. He said he was very worried about the impact on kids, but also on adults.

Cox specifically credited reports by Haidt, Wilcox and Twenge with informing some of his concerns as he sat down with state officials to look over the data and try to craft legislative solutions. It didn’t take long for other state lawmakers to step up and offer to help, identifying what could become Utah solutions, he said. 

Besides providing some of the research on problems to which social media platforms contribute, Wilcox provided “a lot of ideas” and sat down with Winder Newton in her role as family policy director. Wilcox, who is a Deseret News contributing writer, also participated in the daylong tech and mental health summit, a visit that included meeting with Teuscher and McKell, who “kind of took the baton and introduced legislation” during the 2023 legislative session, carrying the bills across the finish line, Wilcox told Deseret News.

Haidt is a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. In testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee last May, he said that the youth mental health crisis came on fast in the early 2010s as social media was gaining traction. A link between the declining mental health of youth and social media was seen, but how strong it was deemed depended on who was asked.

“Correlational, experimental and eyewitness testimony points to social media as a major cause of the crisis. I do not believe that social media is the only cause of the crisis, but there is no alternative hypothesis that can explain the suddenness, enormity and international similarity,” Haidt told state lawmakers. “Researchers and spokespeople for the major platforms who tell you that the evidence is ‘inconclusive’ or that the effect sizes are ‘too small’ should be asked directly: ‘OK, then what do you think caused this?’” he said.

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In other remarks, Cox called SB152 and HB311 “the first-of-their-kind bills in the United States,” with the Beehive State “leading out on this effort.” Cox said the new rules “significantly change the relationship of our children with these very disruptive social media apps.”

Both laws take effect in March 2024 and while critics and proponents alike expect some legal challenges, Cox has said he’s confident the law will pass muster in the courts.

Others aren’t so sure.

“Conditioning these rights on a parent giving prior consent is a huge First Amendment problem,” Ari Cohn, a First Amendment lawyer in Chicago, told the Deseret News’ Kyle Dunphey recently. “Minors have First Amendment rights, and they are limited in more circumstances than for adults, but still only in very narrow circumstances.” Sexually explicit material is one area where rights are different for children, he noted.

After the passage of the Utah bills, Common Sense Media issued a statement supporting HB311, calling it a “huge victory for kids and families in Utah.” It said, “This law adds momentum for other states to hold social media companies accountable to ensure kids across the country are protected online,” and urged other states to follow suit.

The group called the signing of SB152 unfortunate, however, because giving parents access to all their messages and posts “would deprive kids of the online privacy protections we advocate for.” 

Wilcox disagrees.

“I would say that I’m very pleased that Utah has played a pioneering role in giving parents more power to superintend their teenagers’ technological lives. It’s clearly the case that a lot of teenagers, especially teenage girls, are suffering from anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, in part because of the sort of unintended effect of apps like Instagram and Tiktok,” he said.

“So it’s great that you guys recognize this new challenge facing teenagers and their families and have taken a major leadership role in advancing legislation to help parents protect their kids.”

More to come?

The governor predicts that other states will follow Utah’s example with their own legislated restrictions on social media — and expects the support to be bipartisan.

Cox has said that Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and President Joe Biden are both interested in federal legislation to address concerns around social media. There’s “broad agreement” among Democrats and Republicans alike.

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However, even strong proponents of the legislation are not claiming it solves all the issues related to social media. Rather, supporters of the bills call them tools for parents.

“I think these bills are a huge step in the right direction, especially with the restrictions around nighttime use of social media for teens,” said Twenge, author of the book “iGen.” (The book’s subtitle is “Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us.”)

She told the Deseret News that “not getting enough sleep is a major risk factor for mental health issues, and many teens use social media late at night and then don’t sleep enough. I’m glad we are finally starting to see more regulation of social media, especially for children and teens. It’s long overdue, especially given that teen depression doubled between 2011 and 2019, even before the pandemic — right at the time that social media use became increasingly popular among teens.”

Studying the concern

Wilcox said his interest in the issue began in earnest in 2019 when he and the Institute for Family Studies executive director, Michael Toscano, were talking to parents in Richmond, Virginia, about issues facing U.S. families. “A lot of moms especially were expressing concerns about the effect of smartphones on their teenagers,” Wilcox said.

Over time, there’ve been several reports on the topic — including one recently by Wilcox, Twenge and others produced jointly by the institute and the Ethics and Public Policy Center that listed five ideas states should pursue to address teen and tech challenges. Winder Newton called that report “instrumental in giving suggestions on how to help protect teens.”

Louisiana had paved the way for the age restriction portion of the new rules, as it requires pornography websites to verify the age of anyone who wants to view their content.

Wilcox was invited to Utah to discuss ideas with the governor and some legislators, he said, noting that Winder Newton had been tasked with developing family friendly legislation and the concern about youths and social media lined up nicely. Describing Utah as “especially family friendly,” he said the legislation builds on the state’s strengths in that realm.

“Brad has been great to let us bounce ideas off him,” Winder Newton said by email. “As we explored social media legislation, we looked at what other states and countries have done, suggested best practices from professionals, and we spoke with hundreds of parents and youth to find out the barriers Utahns were facing. Gov. Cox isn’t one to just stand around, wringing his hands, as youth mental health continues to decline. ... He wanted to get something meaningful accomplished, and that’s what we did.”

Like tobacco legislation

Wilcox expects some hiccups in implementation when the laws take effect next year. “There will be a learning curve that Utah will be at the front end of,” he said.

He likens the process to tackling the dangers of tobacco 30 years ago, when states and cities first passed laws to ban smoking in restaurants and public venues.

Wilcox sees taking on harm to young people from social media as just that important. “There are different ways to make sure kids are not lost in an electronic world that leaves them emotionally at sea. I call them electronic opiates. They’re quite addictive, oftentimes. People end up losing hours upon hours, you know, in one form of electronic entertainment or another.”

Young people have fear of missing out and while they’re engrossed with their small screens, they may not exercise or socialize. Social media can create or enlarge body image insecurity for young women, too, he said.

In some ways, the concerns are similar to those expressed in the past about spending too much time watching TV — but to a much greater extent. The television stays in the corner of the living room, while people carry smartphones with them everywhere, said Wilcox, who uses the word “omnipresent” to describe them.