To Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who’s previously said he “can’t wait” to fight an expected lawsuit over the state’s recently passed legislation to clamp down on social media companies, the grasp popular platforms like TikTok have on kids is nothing less than an addiction.

“What I hear over and over and over again are desperate kids and desperate parents who have tried everything. They really have,” Cox told reporters during his monthly PBS Utah news conference on Thursday.

The governor said he “hates” comments “mostly from non-parents,” that say, ‘Well if you were just a better parent, your kid would not be doing this.”

“The people that say that do not understand addiction,” Cox said. “Many of the people that shout this at me, ‘if you were a better parent, your kid wouldn’t wouldn’t be spending so much time on social media,’ and yet would never blame an addict, an alcoholic or a drug addict, for their addictions.”

Cox said he knows parents “who have had their kids go through addictive treatment to break them of this social media addiction that they have. They’ve tried everything.”

Utah social media restrictions

Cox’s comments come after he recently signed two 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.

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The bills are intended to give parents more control over kids’ online use, from setting digital curfews to determining if a child can access social media at all. 

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.

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.

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.

Will kids dodge the law?

Cox acknowledged that “kids are smart, kids can find a way around” the law, but “we have to start somewhere. We really do have to try. That’s what we’re attempting to do, to break this terrible addiction that is causing immense harm to our kids.”

The governor’s impassioned comments in response to a question from a student from Judge Memorial Catholic High School who participated in Thursday’s news conference. She asked the governor if he’s considered whether SB152 “might negatively impact minors” if it hinders “their ability to use social media as a tool for learning and information and requires minors to require even more personal information to social media companies.”

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“First of all,” Cox said, “let me assure you that social media companies have all of your information, and that’s part of the problem. ... It’s crazy to me that we just think it’s suddenly OK to let 14-year-olds be at the mercy of these corporate behemoths when it comes to mining your data.”

Cox said social media companies already have access to troves of personal information, and “they have a profile on every single one of us.”

“They know where we live, they know where we shop, they know what we think, eat, drink, sleep. And and so suddenly, people are panicked about, ‘Oh no, they might know I’m a minor, I just don’t see that as a problem at all.’”

As for learning, Cox said “there are other ways to learn than on social media. ... I think we all did OK before we had access to social media.”

The governor noted his 16-year-old daughter is the only one of her friends that’s not on social media, “and she’s doing just fine in school. So I think we can get by.”

“Again, the idea is not to completely keep social media away from kids. That’s not the idea at all. The idea is to make sure that if they are going to use social media, that they’re engaging responsibly, and more importantly, that we’re not destroying their lives, again, with this experiment that social media companies are attempting on our kids.”

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‘Trying to give parents power back’

Cox pointed to steep increases in depression, anxiety and suicide among teens, especially teen girls, and said the aim of Utah’s legislation is to push social media companies to “turn off those addictive algorithms,” especially for minors, and to “help prevent the predatory things that are happening on social media so random strangers and adults don’t show up in (in a minor’s’) timeline, and can’t message you directly or connect with you without your permission or the permission of your parents.”

Cox said parents can make that choice, to give their kid permission to have full access, “they can do that. But that’s a family conversation.”

“We’re not trying to usurp the power of parents — at all,” Cox said. “We have no interest in that. What we’re actually trying to do is give parents the power back.”

“I don’t think I’m a better parent for your kid than you are. I really don’t. I I don’t want to tell you how to parent your kid,” Cox said. “But I do want to give you the opportunity to parent your kid. And that’s not happening right now. ... We’ve given that to social media companies. We’re letting social media companies decide how to parent our kids. And that’s, that’s a huge mistake.”

What will Utah’s lawsuit entail?

As Utah officials anticipate a legal challenge to the legislation, Cox didn’t give specifics when asked what the state’s legal defense will include, but hinted it may mirror lawsuits over opioids or tobacco.

“The opioid litigation is very instructive, in the way that they were able to show that companies had been harming people and had knowledge that they were harming people,” Cox said. “I think the tobacco litigation is another one that we will look very closely. And so, all I can say is that we are preparing for whatever comes out of it.”

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Cox said he expects the U.S. Supreme Court will likely review the case, and he expects previous case law in the ’90s over internet free speech contemplated the “extreme damage” to kids by social media.

“I don’t think that was ever anticipated by the Supreme Court, and I suspect that if a Supreme Court has an opportunity, and they likely will, to review those cases in light of what we know now about social media, that they will find that those cases do not apply to to the social media platforms.”

Asked whether today’s more conservative makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court could help or hurt Utah’s case, Cox said “it’s a good question,” but indicated the issue concerns liberals and conservatives alike.

“I don’t know. It’s something I’ve thought about, and I don’t know that it hurts or helps,” Cox said. “I do think just from kind of a political philosophy that this fits well, in both conservative and liberal camps. It’s one of those strange areas these days where there is some common ground.”