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Utah's governor signs bills going after social media platforms targeting youth

Posted at 3:12 PM, Mar 23, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox has signed a series of bills imposing new restrictions on youth access to social media.

At a ceremony on Thursday, the governor signed the bills that require age-verification, blocks social media platforms from targeting youth in advertising, algorithms and searches and allows companies to be sued for any violations. Gov. Cox called social media apps "very destructive" in their harms to youth and their mental health.

"These are first of their kind bills in the United States," the governor said. "That's huge that Utah is leading out in this effort."

The bills passed the legislature earlier this year with bipartisan support.

"This is a historic day," said Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, who sponsored one of the bills, adding that they are "tools to help parents."

Supporters at Thursday's ceremony (which was also streamed live on social media platforms by the governor's office) applauded as Gov. Cox signed the bills. Utah political leaders have blamed social media companies for mental health harms as they say kids are conditioned to be addicted to screens.

"It’s happening all around us. Anxiety, depression is up. Suicide is up, yes," said Linda Zenger, the digital citizenship specialist for the Utah PTA.

Zenger said the bills should help, but she urged parents to continue to be involved.

"Parents can’t just say 'Oh, we have this legislation we don’t need to do anything.' Parents need to be watching," she told FOX 13 News.

A trade group representing tech companies accuses Utah of violating people's free speech rights and raised privacy concerns about how the state will go about verifying someone's age to use an app.

"Utah will soon require online services to collect sensitive information about teens and families, not only to verify ages, but to verify parental relationships, like government-issued IDs and birth certificates, putting their private data at risk of breach. If people don’t have or are unwilling to submit the required documentation, they would lose access to critical information channels," said NetChoice Litigation Center Associate Director Nicole Saad Bembridge in a statement issued after the bills were signed.

It is unclear if any social media platforms intend to sue over the new laws. The governor and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes have said they are exploring lawsuits against social media companies for alleged harms to children, including impacts to their mental health. One of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, said he supported Utah's pending litigation.

"The amount of damage and the harm we’re doing to our kids is extensive and we need to get a handle on it," he said.

A provision of one of the bills gives Utah's Department of Commerce authority to craft rules to protect privacy. The agency's executive director, Margaret Woolley Busse, told FOX 13 News that they were exploring options beyond a government ID.

"We want to make sure there are things that give people options, people don’t feel like they have to give information to people they don’t want to," she said. "Because I believe very strongly in protection of privacy in data as well."

In a statement to FOX 13 News, a spokesperson for Meta — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — insisted it was already taking steps to protect children.

“We want teens to be safe online. We’ve developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences. We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks. We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it’s reported to us. We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues," the company said.

Sen. McKell said he didn't buy it.

"The data is really really clear our kids are struggling with mental health at a rate they’ve never struggled with before and I think they’re just wrong," he said.