A Senate committee took the first steps toward regulating social media platforms in the state, advancing a bill that would require minors to get parental consent before signing up for social accounts.

SB152 is one of several bills in the Utah Legislature aimed at tech giants this year, after Gov. Spencer Cox made social media regulation one of his top issues ahead of the legislative session. Earlier this month, Cox threatened to regulate social media companies due to the alleged harm to children and announced plans to sue major tech platforms last week.

Cox's brother-in-law, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, is sponsoring the bill, which would require social media companies to use age verification to prevent minors from signing up without their parent's permission and would prohibit companies from collecting or selling personal data of minors.

"I want to dispel that myth that this age verification is the big bad government looking into our personal lives," McKell said. "I think we have a clear problem and this is the solution that we think is best."

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton, who also serves as a senior adviser to the governor, cited several statistics that point to the potential harms of social media, including that 1 in 3 U.S. high school students have had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

"As we look at mental health numbers, there's a clear difference in what was happening before 2009 and what's been happening since," she said. "Parents know better than big tech what is best for their children."

Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser and director of the new Utah Office of Families, speaks with Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, about social media regulation bill SB152 in the Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser and director of the new Utah Office of Families, speaks with Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, about social media regulation bill SB152 in the Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A handful of parents spoke in favor of the bill, along with representatives from the Utah Attorney General's Office and advocacy groups like Utah Parents United and the Utah Eagle Forum. Several lawmakers used the committee hearing to further criticize big tech companies, accusing them of designing algorithms that are addictive and harmful to children.

"They create tools, evolve tools, and have enough data about our kids right now that, honestly, you probably know (kids') preferences better than we do," said Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said in response to a spokesperson from the Computer and Communications Industry Association who spoke against the bill. "And I would say that Meta has done alarmingly little."

Daniel Burton spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Utah Attorney General's Office, which oversees a task force created to prevent crimes against children. He said social media regulations will help protect kids from online predators.

"Sometimes it can feel like they are an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff," he said. "As kids come falling off they will be there to help them and protect them and go after the predator. If we could put a fence at the top, it might mean fewer children falling off."

Attendees listen during discussion for the social media regulation bill SB152 in the Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Attendees listen during discussion for the social media regulation bill SB152 in the Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Ben Horsley, chief of staff for Granite School District, spoke in favor of the bill. He said the district and law enforcement spent around 600 man-hours last week alone investigating social media threats and other adverse situations.

"Just since the start of the break, we've had 12 different voyeur cases happen where kids are being filmed ... over stall doors," he said. "One of those photos traveled across all 16 of our junior high schools. That's a kid whose life has been altered for the rest of his life because a pornographic video of him taking care of business in a restroom was shared across the district. Our kids cannot handle this."

Not everyone was in support of the bill, and some — including 13-year-old Lucy Loewen — said the benefits of social media can outweigh the downside. Lucy 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?" she asked the committee. "We want to stop government intervention, so why would we let the government control our lives?"

Lucy Loewen, 13, speaks about the social media regulation bill SB152 in Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Lucy Loewen, 13, speaks about the social media regulation bill SB152 in Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Caden Rosenbaum, with the Libertas Institute, argued that the bill would actually cause more harm to children by requiring social media companies to collect personal information from their parents.

"That kind of data in the hands of any company really is dangerous, because it's not a matter of if it will be breached; it's a matter of when," he said. "When that kind of information goes on the dark web, it becomes a real danger to children to have their age and home address (online)."

McKell argued that it's nothing new, given that millions of Americans voluntarily give up their information to join dating websites or for online gambling.

McKell said his bill would require every adult in Utah to submit age verification in order to use social media, and clarified that social media companies wouldn't collect age information from children. Instead, minor accounts would need to be associated with a verified adult account.

SB152 ultimately passed out of the Senate Business and Labor Committee favorably, but McKell said he plans to continue to work on the bill with stakeholders to massage some of the concerns about privacy.

The bill will now head to the Senate floor for further consideration.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser and director of the new Utah Office of Families, speak about social media regulation bill SB152 in the Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, and Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser and director of the new Utah Office of Families, speak about social media regulation bill SB152 in the Senate Business and Labor committee meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

During a daily press availability, Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Senate leaders haven't had a chance to discuss McKell's bill but said the platforms are "causing some social and mental health issues" for children and teens, especially when it comes to self-esteem. Adams signaled he would be open to requiring companies to provide better parental controls because it can be nearly impossible for parents to enforce household rules against social media use.

"It may be hard to believe that I was a teenager once ... but we know kids: They don't always follow what their parents do, especially when the parents aren't around," he said. "And there needs to be a backstop for the parents."

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, is the co-sponsor of McKell's bill and is running a separate bill that would completely ban those under the age of 16 from joining social media platforms and require parental consent for those between ages 16 and 18. Teuscher's bill, HB311, was made public on Friday and has yet to be assigned to a committee.

HB270, sponsored by Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, would ban cellphones and smartwatches from K-12 classrooms.