Utah Law May Limit TikTok and Instagram Use by Minors

Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox has signed a new social media bill that could significantly limit youth access to apps like TikTok and Instagram. The bill is the first state law in the US that prohibits social media services from allowing users under 18 to have accounts without the explicit consent of a parent or guardian. The new measure will also require social networks to give Utah parents access to their children’s posts, messages, and responses. It will also require social media services to block Utah minors from accessing their accounts from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., a default setting that only a parent or guardian will be able to modify.

The bill was sponsored by Republican member Michael K. McKell, who said the statute was intended to address a “mental health crisis” among American teenagers as well as protect younger users from bullying and child sexual exploitation. While the measure may come as welcome news for many parents, civil liberties experts and tech industry groups said it raised significant privacy and free speech concerns. Some warned that the new law, which will require social networks to verify users’ ages and obtain parental consent for those under 18, could cut off young people in Utah from major online platforms and infringe on parental rights to decide how their children used the internet.

Governor Cox also signed a second bill on Thursday that will prohibit social media companies from employing features or design techniques that could cause a minor to form an “addiction” to their online platforms. The Utah measures come at a moment of heightened public concern and political action over powerful social media algorithms that may entice young people to spend hours online.

Efforts to minimize online risks to young people have attracted widespread, bipartisan support. In his State of the Union address last month, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass legislation restricting how tech companies may track teenagers and children online. State legislatures have already introduced a number of bills intended to limit mental health and safety risks that social networks, multiplayer video games, and other online services may pose to some children and teenagers. Last year, California enacted a sweeping online safety law that will require many social networks, video games, and other services to install the equivalent of seatbelts and airbags for younger users.

The Utah law far outstrips the California online safety effort, imposing broad constraints and enabling parental surveillance that could alter how many teenagers in Utah use the internet. Sarah Coyne, a professor of child development at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, warned that the measure could inadvertently boomerang, exacerbating youth mental health issues by cutting off vulnerable young people from important sources of information and support.

Senator McKell said that the bill was intended to help parents protect their children online and that potential benefits far outweighed potential drawbacks. In addition to requiring parental consent, the bill will prohibit social networks from allowing strangers to message young people, ban targeted advertising, and limit companies’ collection and use of young people’s personal data. The Utah measure, which applies to social networks with at least five million account holders worldwide, is scheduled to take effect on March 1, 2024.

The Arkansas Legislature has introduced a similar bill that would require social network platforms to verify users’ ages and obtain explicit parental consent for people under 18. A bill introduced in Texas is even more stringent: it would ban social media accounts for minors.