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Utah outlaws kids' social media addiction, sets digital curfew

Age verification, a private right to sue Big Tech ... thinking of the children or political points?

To protect children, Utah Governor Spencer Cox on Thursday signed two bills aimed at "holding social media companies accountable."

The new US state laws are likely to be challenged by advocacy organizations and technology companies for denying the rights of young people and for imposing an age verification scheme that will require identification. What's likely to be a particularly thorny issue is a required 2230 to 0630 digital curfew for kids using social media, although parents can opt out their offspring of this requirement.

"SB152 requires social media companies to verify that users in the state are 18 or older to open an account," said Cox via Twitter. "Minors will need parental consent to create an account."

"HB311 prohibits social media companies from using a design or feature that causes addiction for a minor to the company’s social media platform. This bill also makes it easier for people to sue social media companies for damages."

"Addiction," according to HB311, "means use of a social media platform that: (a) indicates the user's substantial preoccupation or obsession with, or the user's substantial difficulty to cease or reduce use of, the social media platform; and (b) causes physical, mental, emotional, developmental, or material harms to the user."

How much Instagram is too much Instagram? That's not specified in the new laws.

HB311 lets the state fine social media companies up to $250,000 "for each practice, design, or feature shown to have caused addiction" and $2,500 for each account holder exposed to that feature. It also establishes a private right for individuals to sue for $2,500 per incident of harm.

In a video message on the state's SocialMedia.Utah.Gov website, which is focused on protecting minors online, Cox says, "Youth rates of depression and other mental health issues are on the rise, and social media companies know their products are toxic. They designed their apps to be addictive."

Does Utah have a point?

There is evidence that social media can negatively influence mental health, to say nothing of political influence operations. And there's also evidence that social media companies are aware that teens blame them for depression [PDF].

While studies indicate there's a correlation between time spent on social media and depression, particularly in teenage girls, researchers say more work needs to be done to establish causation.

But the correlation doesn't look good for social media firms. According to the US Centers for Disease Control [PDF], "After a period of stability from 2000 to 2007 … the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults aged 10–24 in the United States increased 57.4 percent from 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 in 2018." Facebook was founded in 2004; YouTube surfaced in 2005; Twitter debuted in 2006; WhatsApp launched in 2009; and Instagram appeared in 2010.

Meanwhile... We note that the FTC has proposed making it a rule that companies provide a "click to cancel" link or button on their site or app, allowing people to end their subscriptions as easily as they started them. We'll see how well that plays out...

Yet, social media has a positive side and experts argue that the benefits of teens being able to connect to peers need to be considered, alongside potential harms.

A study published last year, Social Media and Mental Health, captures the complicated dynamic. It found that "the roll-out of Facebook at a college increased symptoms of poor mental health, especially depression," and also that "among students predicted to be most susceptible to mental illness, the introduction of Facebook led to increased utilization of mental healthcare services."

Whether letting parents sue social media platforms for ostensibly addicting their kids will improve adolescent mental health or merely serve as a college funding option remains to be seen – "Keep tapping, Alice. We need 40 instances of harm to cover your next four years at school."

Based on 2020 data, the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the US is firearms, followed by motor vehicle crashes and then drug overdose and poisoning.

Think of the children!

Earlier this month, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) sent a letter [PDF] to Cox urging him not to sign SB152 because it will interfere with the rights of young people and adults.

"When the government exercises its power to regulate material, it must narrowly tailor the regulation to avoid interfering with the First Amendment freedoms of adults," wrote Jason Kelley, EFF acting activism director.

"As a result of the age verification process, this law will also interfere with the broader public’s First Amendment right to receive information. Collecting private data like this not only creates dangers of hacking and privacy breaches, it means that no user on a social media platform can remain anonymous."

Adam Kovacevich, CEO of Chamber of Progress, a tech industry lobbying group, raised similar objections.

"Requiring age verification is going to impact the privacy of all users in Utah, because social media sites will be forced to gather additional personal information," he said in a statement.

"But the biggest victim of today’s legislation is going to be young adults living in a household without supportive parents. For young people who identify as LGBTQ or who live in abusive households, these bills could isolate them from supportive communities online." ®

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