Utah teens will need parents’ permission to use social media

The new laws' broad language sets a curfew for social media use, and could even affect apps like Duolingo and AllTrails.
Two people holding smartphones
Utah's laws are as strict as they are potentially unconstitutional. Deposit Photos

Utah’s governor signed two bills into law on Thursday aimed at protecting the state’s underage social media users. Privacy critics, however, argue that the new laws’ constitutional legality and enforcement remain troublingly murky.

As NBC News and elsewhere report, H.B. 311 and S.B. 152 would make any social media companies with over 10 million users age-verify all Utah residents, as well as require parental consent from minors who want to make a profile. Among other sweeping reforms, the laws also require social media companies to allow parents complete access to their children’s posts and private messages. Additionally, the law sets up a curfew on social media use for underage Utahns from between 10:30 PM to 6:30 AM. Although the new legislation is scheduled to take effect in March 2024, it is unclear if the regulations will hold up to judicial scrutiny. 

In a letter sent to Gov. Spencer Cox earlier this month, digital rights advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued Utah’s bills are some of the most egregious they’ve seen so far.  Other states including Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Ohio, and New Jersey are considering similar legislation, as well.

[Related: Social media drama can hit teens hard at different ages.]

“Young people have First Amendment rights,” writes an EFF representative, adding that federal attempts to restrict internet content access “generally have not withstood constitutional scrutiny when challenged” in courts. Privacy advocates also argue Utah’s laws will ironically give social media companies even greater access to users’ private data via ID verification requirements, as well as disadvantage many young Utahans by limiting informational access. Because of the laws’ broad language, EFF argues apps including Duolingo and the hiking service, AllTrails, are subject to the new access restrictions.

“This all feels a little like the ‘ban on dancing’ in Footloose,” argued Evan Greer, director for  online privacy group Fight for the Future.

In an email to PopSci, Greer agreed there are “very real harms” to youth from social media companies, but contended that those problems would be better addressed by cracking down on abusive corporate practices rather than “draconian” restrictions for young people—restrictions Greer said could disproportionately harm LGBTQ+ children and those suffering from abusive environments. “[T]hey also just don’t really make any sense. I’m not sure anyone has actually thought about how any of this will work in practice,” added Greer.

[Related: Why TikTok’s algorithm is so addictive.]

Greer points to various scenarios, such as how to authentically determine a young person’s parent or legal guardian, as well as instances involving custody battles or abuse allegations. “Once you create mechanisms for parents to snoop on their kids’ social media activity, they’ll be abused by others,” said Greer.

Instead of Utah’s latest examples, Greer and likeminded advocates contend politicians should push to pass comprehensive privacy legislation. The FTC and state regulators, they argue, should tighten restrictions on predatory design practices such as apps’ autoplay and infinite scroll features, using personal data for algorithmic recommendations, and intrusive notifications.

“These laws are clearly unconstitutional,” said Greer, “but more importantly they’re going to put children in danger and strip them of their rights.”