Social Media

Utah Legislature To Revise Social Media Limits for Youth as It Navigates Multiple Lawsuits

Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone in this illustration
Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram apps are seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken, July 13, 2021. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

By The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s Republican legislative leaders took aim at social media companies on the opening day of the state’s 2024 legislative session, pledging to reinforce laws they passed last year to require parental permission for kids to access social media apps.

The two laws, signed last March by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, have been hit with multiple lawsuits challenging their constitutionality. They require age verification for anyone in the state who wants to create a social media account, which critics say could compromise users’ data security. The laws also set a statewide social media curfew, prohibiting minors from using the apps between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. unless authorized by a parent, and give parents access to their children’s accounts.

With both laws set to take effect March 1, Republicans say they are prioritizing revisions during their annual 45-day work session to ensure they hold up in court.

In his opening address Tuesday, Republican Senate President Stuart Adams reaffirmed his support for shielding children and teens from targeted advertisements and online content that might affect their well-being.

“We will continue to lead the nation in protecting kids against social media, and we will hold social media companies accountable for the harm that they are inflicting upon our youth,” Adams said. “We will stand for our children and proudly fight any litigation.”

A new federal lawsuit filed this week builds upon challenges brought last month by NetChoice — a trade group representing major social media companies like TikTok, Meta and X, formerly known as Twitter — which argues that the Utah laws require all social media users in the state, not just minors, to share an excess of personal data to confirm their age and identity.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit civil liberties group, is now focusing on how the laws might limit free speech and information access. The plaintiffs in their lawsuit include an LGBTQ+ high school student, a mental health content creator and two advocates who escaped a polygamous community. They warn the laws will disproportionately impact Utah’s most vulnerable youth, cutting them off from support and educational resources that could be life-saving.

Among them is Lu Ann Cooper, co-founder of the organization Hope After Polygamy, who was raised in a polygamous family in Utah and said she was coerced to marry her first cousin when she was only 15 years old. Since escaping, she has used social media to help girls in similar situations.

For Utah high school student Hannah Zoulek, who identifies as queer, the laws could limit her ability to connect with her community online. She worries they also could endanger closeted LGBTQ+ youths by removing the option of anonymity and granting their parents access to their accounts.

“Growing up already isn’t easy, and the government making it harder to talk with people who have similar experiences to mine just makes it even more difficult,” Zoulek said.

The laws also create new pathways for parents to sue social media companies for causing their children harm. The burden of proof now falls on those companies to demonstrate that their products are not hurting kids.

Any social media platform with at least 5 million users is subject to the new regulations, and companies that do not comply face steep fines.

Cox and the Republican legislative leaders said they are not afraid of the legal challenges and pointed to studies demonstrating how social media can harm youth mental health. But while the office of Attorney General Sean Reyes fends off the legal challenges in court, lawmakers are busy drafting replacement language that Sen. Kirk Cullimore said should eliminate the free speech issues raised in the complaints.

In the meantime, the Sandy Republican has introduced a bill delaying when the social media laws would take effect, pushing back the date from March 1 to Oct. 1 to give lawmakers more time to make changes. NetChoice has asked a federal judge to halt the laws from taking effect while the cases move through the legal system.

Federal judges have temporarily blocked Arkansas and Ohio from enforcing their state laws requiring parental consent for minors to create new social media accounts.

The attorney general’s office said Tuesday it is still reviewing the new lawsuit and has no comment at this time.