Earlier this year, legislators made Utah the first state in the nation to impose rules requiring children under 18 to obtain parent permission before signing up on social media platforms. Set to take effect in March 2024, the tenets of SB152 also include setting time constraints on when minors can access social media sites, instituting an age verification requirement for social media sign-ups and stipulating that site operators must provide parents with access to their children’s content and the ability to track activity on the sites.

The so-called Utah Social Media Regulation Act drew bipartisan support from lawmakers in the 2023 session, breezing through state House and Senate votes by wide majorities. Gov. Spencer Cox supported the effort and, despite veto calls from advocacy groups who cited First Amendment and privacy concerns with the legislation, signed the bill into law this spring. Cox has been an outspoken proponent of government oversight of social media companies, referencing research he says has exposed the potential “significant harm” to young social media users.

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found overwhelming support for the parent permission provision of the new law with 79% of respondents saying they somewhat or strongly agree with the new rule, while 18% said they somewhat or strongly disagreed.

When parsed by political party affiliation, Republican respondents were somewhat more supportive of the parent permission measure, with 82% weighing in as supportive, versus 71% of Democrats who said they were somewhat or strongly in favor.

The statewide survey was conducted June 26-July 4 of 801 registered Utah voters by Dan Jones and Associates. The results come with a plus or minus 3.46% margin of error.

Utah becomes the first state with a law that could limit teens’ social media use

In a New York Times interview earlier this month, Cox laid out his concerns about social media use by those under 18 and why he thought it was time for state government to take a bigger role in regulating the conduct of platform operators.

“We’ve looked extensively at the research,” Cox said. “We’ve done our homework on this one. We’ve spent time with parents and children, all across the state, and there is a general consensus and acknowledgment that social media and access to these devices is causing harm. Significant harm.”

During legislative committee discussion of the Social Media Regulation Act earlier this year, some Utah parents, conservative advocacy groups and the Utah Attorney General’s office spoke in favor of the bill. But one commentator who appeared before the Senate Business and Labor Committee in January, 13-year-old Lucy Loewen, said the benefits of social media can outweigh the downside. Loewen said teenagers can use social media to connect with friends and that those connections can help them deal with depression and suicidal thoughts.

“Will this really be creating responsible teenagers and adults if the government is just taking over and not letting us choose for ourselves?” Loewen asked the committee. “We want to stop government intervention, so why would we let the government control our lives?”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a national nonprofit digital rights group, has raised its own concerns about the Utah legislation, arguing the new regulations undermine First Amendment protections by “depriving teenagers of their First Amendment rights to express themselves, access protected speech, engage in anonymous speech, and participate in online communities.” The group also contends that provisions of the Utah Social Media Regulation Act violate “core First Amendment rights of people of all ages by requiring identification to access important global platforms.”

In a May website posting, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist director Jason Kelley wrote that state interventions into the rights of families and individuals, like those embodied in Utah’s new social media access rules and other similar proposals around the country, wouldn’t effectively address broader societal problems.

“Social media’s toxicity is a real issue,” Kelley wrote. “But young people are not the only ones affected, and solutions that limit their rights in egregious ways are not solutions at all.

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“Laws that insert the state into a family’s right to decide what level of independence a young person has, and block young people from accessing legal speech, will not solve the problems these complex social issues, which exist both online and offline.”

When asked by The New York Times about whether or not the state was inappropriately taking over decisions that should be left to parents, Cox defended the new Utah social media access rules.

“Well, look, we’re not telling parents how to parent,” Cox said. “The law empowers parents. It doesn’t tell parents what they have to do at all. Again, if they want their kids to be on social media at 4 in the morning, they have the ability to allow their kids to do that.

“This is giving more tools to parents.”

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