Utah: Social media law is ambitious, can it be enforced?

Utah’s new social media law passed this week is an ambitious attempt to protect children and teens from the harmful effects of social media and give parents more power to decide whether minors should be using apps like TikTok or Instagram.

What is unclear is whether and how the new rules will be enforced, and whether they will have unintended consequences for children and adolescents already facing a mental health crisis. And while parental rights are a central issue in Utah’s new laws, experts noted that parental rights and children’s well-being are not always aligned.

For example, allowing parents to read their children’s private messages could be harmful to some children, and age verification requirements could give technology companies access to children’s personal information, such as their biometric data, if they use features like facial recognition to check age.

“Children may be at greater risk if these laws are applied in a way that doesn’t allow them some privacy, if they don’t allow some ability to free expression or autonomy,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the nonprofit organization profit Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

The laws, which take effect in a year, impose a digital curfew on users under 18, require minors to get parental permission to sign up for social media apps, and require companies to verify the age of all Utah users. They also require tech companies to give parents access to their children’s private accounts and messages, raising concerns among children’s advocates, who say this could further harm children’s mental health by depriving them of your right to privacy. This is especially true for LGBTQ+ children whose parents do not accept their identity.

The rules could drastically transform the way people in this conservative state use social media and the internet, and if successful, serve as a model for other states to enact similar laws. But even if the laws outweigh the inevitable demands from tech companies, it’s unclear how Utah will be able to implement them.

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For example, age verification. There are several measures to verify the age of a person on the internet. Someone could upload an official ID and authorize the use of facial recognition software to prove that she is the age she claims to be.

“Some of these verification measures are wonderful, but then they also require the collection of sensitive data. And that can pose new risks, especially for marginalized youth,” Perry said. “And it also places a new kind of burden on parents to control their children. These things seem simple and straightforward at first glance, but there are actually new risks that can arise in terms of that additional data collection on children.”

Just as teens have managed to get fake IDs to drink alcohol, they’re also adept at flouting age guidelines online.

“In Southeast Asia, they’ve been trying for years, decades, and kids always get around it,” said Gaia Bernstein, author of “Unwired,” a book on beating technology addiction.

The problem is that Utah rules do not require social networks to prevent children from connecting. Instead, they leave that responsibility in the hands of parents.

“I think that’s going to be the weak link in the whole thing, because kids drive their parents crazy,” Bernstein said.

There is no precedent in the United States for such drastic regulation of social networks, although several states are preparing similar regulations.

Federally, companies are already prohibited from collecting data from children under 13 without parental consent under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. For this reason, social media platforms already prohibit anyone under 13 from registering on their sites, but children can easily break the rules, with or without parental consent.

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