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Utah plans to sue social media companies for alleged harms to children, teens

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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks about social media from the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said the state plans to sue major social media companies over the alleged harms to children, but offered few details about what that litigation might look like.

During a press conference Monday, Cox said social media companies have known how their platforms can negatively impact the mental health of children and teens, and again asked that companies provide better parental controls and limit younger people from creating accounts. Earlier this month, Cox issued a similar warning to companies, and several state legislators spoke about their plans to regulate social media platforms — including requiring age verification and banning cellphones from classrooms.

"Legal action is one more way that we can bring meaningful change to protect our children," Cox said.

"We know that teens often create posts without considering the long-term consequences or privacy concerns," he continued. "We know that teens — and adults for that matter — feel lonelier than ever before, in large part because social media is taking us away from in-person social connections."

Cox went on to say that social media "has stepped into the void" as people spend less time with families, churches, schools and community groups. He compared social media companies to pharmaceutical companies that make opioids.

"They knew how bad it was before we did," he said.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said that lawsuits have yet to be filed, but the state is considering "any and all" claims against various platforms.


Gov. Spencer Cox is joined at the podium by Attorney General Sean Reyes as they take questions about plans to address the harmful impacts social media is having on the mental health and well-being of Utah youth in the Gold Room at the Capitol on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

"Social media is not itself inherently good or evil, but the overuse and abuse of social media, the manipulation of it, the unrealistic expectations fostered by it have become so damaging to our kids that I believe ... the negative aspects of social media are an existential threat," Reyes said. "... We are on the other side of a social media Rubicon — a point of no return unless we take serious action."

Utah wouldn't be the first state to sue major social media companies, after Indiana's attorney general sued TikTok in December and Seattle Public Schools sued the parent companies of TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat earlier this month. The Seattle school district argued the companies have had a negative impact on the mental health of students.

Citing separate concerns about ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, Cox banned the platform on all state-owned devices last month. Under China's national security law, the ruling Chinese Communist Party can force companies to turn over intellectual property and proprietary information of users in the United States.

Both Cox and Reyes said the state is still open to working with social media companies to resolve concerns outside of the courts but will move ahead with potential lawsuits in the meantime.

"It's very telling when the very people building these apps refuse to let their kids have them," Cox said. "... They are designed, intentionally, to make sure that you never put them down."

The governor also thanked Utah Congressman Chris Stewart, who — as the recently named co-chairman of the bipartisan Mental Health Caucus — is sponsoring a bill that would make it illegal for social media platforms to provide access to children younger than 16. Stewart also said he wants to require that companies be responsible for verifying the ages of their users.

"We agree that this is an issue that should be taken care of at the national level as it impacts every state and we would love to see more done there," Cox said. "But in the meantime, Utah will continue to do everything we can to protect our kids."

Requiring age verification to create accounts is one of the most important issues Cox said he wants to see the companies address, in addition to a ban on platforms selling kids' data and tighter parental controls.

The lawsuits could come within a month, but there is no definitive timeline, Reyes said.