Utah’s governor and legislature have taken a hard line when it comes to teen social media use, but the state’s voters see some leeway in terms of age requirements for having such accounts.

That’s according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, which found that a majority of Utah adults favor limiting social media to those 16 and older (60%), with not quite 1 in 4 thinking teens should be at least 18 before they can have Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok accounts.

Experts note that while one is not an adult until 18, states allow teens 16 and older different responsibilities, such as driving.

The poll results come in the wake of two recently signed bills that make Utah the first state in the U.S. to bar anyone under 18 years old from using social media without express permission from a parent or guardian.

Between March 14-22, 801 registered Utah voters were asked at what age minors should be able to use social media. About 33% said at 14 to 15 years old, while 36% said 16 to 17.

Just 8% said children 13 or younger should have access to social media. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.

That doesn’t mean social media isn’t concerning to the subset of 312 parents in the survey with school-age children. The vast majority of those parents said they are worried their child could encounter inappropriate content online, with 63% concerned “a great deal” and 31% “a little.”

Even more were concerned their minor children might find sexually explicit content online, with 68% saying they worry “a great deal” and 31% answering “a little.” Just 6% said they were not worried about sexual content.

The survey also asked the parents with minor children what steps they take to keep their family safe online. The majority, 68%, said they “have taken all necessary precautions to protect my kids.”

About 8% said they don’t worry much about what their kids would find online, 9% said their kids “keep asking for more autonomy than I am comfortable with,” 7% said kids “resist my efforts to protect them from negative influences online” and 9% are “not familiar with the services/settings that could protect my kids.”

The subset of questions asked only of parents with minor children has an error margin of 5.5 percentage points.

A majority of Utah parents are worried about their kids’ access to inappropriate online content, according to a recent poll.
Gov. Spencer Cox shakes hands with Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, after signing HB311, Social Media Usage Amendments, which Cullimore sponsored, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 23, 2023. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Utah restrictions

The day after the survey was completed, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed two of the country’s first and most restrictive social media bills into law. They are intended to give parents more control over kids’ online use, from setting time restrictions to saying if a child can access social media at all.

Sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, SB152 directs social media companies to get consent from a parent or guardian before someone under 18 opens an account, effectively requiring all Utahns to prove their age to use social media.

When parents approve a social media account, the company must limit overnight use by minors unless there’s parental consent, shield youths from advertising — including targeted ads, content or accounts — and prevent minors from messaging certain accounts. Parents or guardians will be able to monitor their child’s social media use and interactions.

HB311, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, prohibits social media companies from using tools that make social media addictive for youths.

“(HB311) allows for these social media companies to report quarterly to the Department of Commerce and have an independent audit that shows that those algorithms haven’t been built to cause minors to be addicted to these platforms,” Teuscher said shortly after the bill was signed.

Under both bills, the Department of Commerce can investigate and fine social media companies that don’t comply. The bills take effect March 1, 2024.

Cox, McKell and Teuscher all said they hope tech giants will work with lawmakers next session, something the delay would allow.

“Come to the table, work with us,” Teuscher said. “If there are better solutions than what we have in these bills, we’ll implement them. We’ll pass them at the beginning of next session. But right now the clock is ticking.”

Supporters like University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox laud Utah’s new rules — and say the poll shows public support, too.

“This survey indicates that most parents in Utah think young kids should not be on social media without their parent’s permission. I am pleased that the Utah legislation will give parents the ability to say yea or nay to their kids’ getting on apps like TikTok or Instagram,” Wilcox said.

He called it “noteworthy that a large minority” have concerns even about older teens accessing the platforms and can keep their kids off until adulthood if they want.

While the legislation didn’t define how companies will verify a user’s age, advocates of the new rules say Louisiana could be a model; it requires age verification for online pornography sites.

Jean Twenge, a sociology professor at San Diego State and author of the book “iGen,” said technology advancements offer other possibilities, too. A third-party site could collect identity verification for multiple social media platforms. There are companies like Clear, which collects identification to use at airports, that know how to manage identity data. There’s also talk that artificial intelligence could be used to tell how old someone is using a facial scan. “That’s imperfect, but getting more and more accurate,” she said, a potential first step that leads to another if the scan gets age provably wrong.

Not all bad?

Still, Sarah Coyne, a professor of child development in Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life, said the issue isn’t all black and white. She calls research on social media’s role in the youth mental health crisis “more complex and nuanced” than it’s sometimes presented.

Social media, she said, is a tool. And like any tool, it can be used to good or bad effect. She points out that a hammer could kill someone — or build a house. Coyne believes social media’s effect on individuals involves many factors, including their personality, experiences, current social situation and history. What they’re viewing on social media matters, as does with whom they communicate, when and the type of media used.

For some, social media can be very negative, but it can be positive for others and neutral for lots more, said Coyne, who noted a study from the Netherlands that said for the vast majority of adolescents, the impact is neutral or positive.

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Coyne said her own social media feed has inspirational quotes and beautiful pictures and memes that never fail to uplift her and inspire her to try to be her best self.

While some adolescents may suffer from social comparisons on social media, Coyne said others may curate who they follow and befriend in ways that reduce mental health symptoms. Youths who look at eating disorder websites likely feel negative impact, she said, but there are also positive body image sites that teach people to embrace their size and shape, which could be helpful.

Young people who feel like they don’t belong, LGBTQ youths and those with severe social anxiety are among those that may craft a community online that provides a sense of belonging and can “reduce suicide risk in some pretty substantial ways,” said Coyne.

The Wheatley Institute at BYU found that in a recent study, “Teaching by Example,” as Deseret News reported in June. That study also suggests that how parents use social media can pose risks for kids.

Coyne would like to see lawmakers take a “careful, thoughtful, nuanced look at the research and pass bills that would help all teenagers — “something like putting money into media literacy education from a very young age that helps our children learn how to thrive in their media world instead of just trying to shield them from it,” she said.

Online risks

Monitoring if kids have social media isn’t as simple for parents as saying yes or no, said Twenge. Right now, there’s an age floor of 13 many go around. And since many have their own online devices, “it’s very hard for parents to know what kids and teens are doing online. Unfortunately, a lot of times they don’t know until it goes wrong.”

Twenge cites the case of Alexis Spence, who hid her Instagram account from her parents when she was 11. Spence, now 20, alleges in a lawsuit against Meta that social media use contributed to addiction to the app, depression, self-harm, an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts.

Her parents did everything they were supposed to, from having conversations to restricting use, Twenge said. Spence still got an account.

Another challenge, Twenge said, is that school-owned computers some students use don’t allow parental controls.

Inappropriate content

There’s a lot online to worry parents, from sexually explicit material to items related to violence and self-harm, Twenge told Deseret News. Social media apps can also be a place where adult strangers contact minors. “Sometimes those conversations can be very inappropriate,” including sending explicit pictures. She said some of TikTok’s so-called challenges can be dangerous, too.

Though the sites say they take down inappropriate material, Twenge said her experience consulting on lawsuits suggests it sometimes takes years to get material removed.

The age limits themselves pose a problem, according to Twenge, because they’re not verified. She’s happy Utah is tackling that. A child can check a box, lie about the birthdate and “boom, you have an account. A 7-year-old can do it — and we know that has happened.”

She thinks getting social media out of middle school is a good idea — which would make the bottom age at least 15. Sixteen makes more sense, since then kids are deemed responsible enough to drive, Twenge added.

“I know parents are in a tough position when it comes to technology,” Twenge told Deseret News. “I’m not at all suggesting it’s easy or that parents should be aware of all these things or they’re not doing their job. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all of that.

“That’s why we need help, why we need these laws. Parents struggle with this because it’s hard,” she said.