Utah has been a first mover in children’s online safety legislation. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed two laws that aim to increase online protections for children, empower parents and hold social media companies accountable. 

The passage of the Social Media Regulation Act made Utah the first state to pass a law regulating social media use for children and teens. This law will require parental permission for children under 18 to create a social media account, mandate age verification for all users, restrict the hours teens can use social media, and make social media companies liable if young users become addicted to their platforms or experience online harms. 

An important, and currently underexplained, part of the law is the requirement that social media platforms must verify the age of all users. Age assurance has the potential to increase online safety by allowing truly age-appropriate experiences, with enhanced protections for the youngest users. However, there are significant tradeoffs that must be considered when balancing invasiveness and effectiveness (or privacy and safety). In other words, how much individual privacy must be sacrificed in the name of online safety? Or vice versa?

The Family Online Safety Institute, or FOSI, has conducted research about how families use and view age assurance and recently published a white paper on the topic. Age assurance can be a key factor in improving online safety, but the regulations need to be thoughtfully crafted and clearly communicated in order to be effective. As state regulators continue to define these requirements, we urge them to consider our findings. 

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A few months after Gov. Spencer Cox signed these bills into law, he launched a public awareness campaign about social media. While some of the main points in the campaign, including the “tips for parents,” are online safety best practices that we have been promoting for years, the framing of the campaign lacks nuance and is overly focused on fear-based messaging.

Some of the recommendations for parents from the governor’s campaign that FOSI fully supports include the following:

  • Learn about social media platforms and how they work.
  • Model responsible online behavior for your child.
  • Make time to connect with your child, device-free.
  • Create tech-free zones and find opportunities to connect in person with your child.
  • Have open and honest discussions with your child about the harms of social media and spending time online.
  • Create a family plan with expectations of how and when to use technology and social media.

Many of these are based in academic research, recommended by child development experts, and considered best practices among the parenting and online safety communities. Our own Good Digital Parenting resources echo these recommendations, and we have seen firsthand how education, modeling and honest family discussions are instrumental in establishing safe online habits.

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However, the campaign misses a major opportunity by focusing only on the negative impact of social media. Fear-based messaging, inflexible restrictions and full bans of online content, platforms and experiences are not only ineffective, but they also deprive kids from the chance to establish healthy, realistic and safe boundaries with their devices and in their online lives.

Medical professionals have issued advisories and recommendations about the impact of online experiences on teenage mental health. In 2023, the American Psychological Association acknowledged that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people,” and the U.S. Surgeon General separately stated that social media has both positive and negative impacts on children and adolescents. The impact of social media on teenage mental health is real and important, but it is also nuanced and requires sober consideration of the tradeoffs. 

As a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, we have been working to improve online safety for more than 16 years. FOSI welcomes the interest in online safety policy and commends lawmakers for prioritizing the safety of the youngest users. Parents and guardians have an essential role to play in keeping their children safe online. However, children, especially older teens, have rights as well, and we are concerned that Utah’s Social Media Regulation Act will intrude on rights to privacy, expression and education. Before these laws go into effect in 2024, it is vital for regulators to consider thoughtful, balanced, practical age assurance measures that increase online safety while respecting rights.

Stephen Balkam is the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute.

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