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Utah’s War Against Teenage Social Media Abuse

In attempting to regulate use of social media by young people, the state has pushed the idea the furthest, and other states may follow its lead. Will it work? And will it survive the inevitable legal challenges?

Teenagers using smartphones
“The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. … They are impatient of all restraint.” Socrates is supposed to have said that in the 5th century B.C. It’s not clear that he ever used such words, but the fact that they have been quoted for so many centuries suggests that adults have been worrying about teenage behavior since long before the concept of teenagers even existed.

They certainly are worrying about it in Utah. A few weeks ago, Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law two bills aimed at drastically reducing teen use of social media. When the laws take effect next year, Utah residents under the age of 18 will be barred from using social media sites unless they have express permission from their parents, who must verify their children’s ages. In the late evening and early morning hours, they will be barred from using them at all, though parents can override the restrictions if they want to. Social media platforms are required to verify the information. The state Department of Commerce can investigate and fine social media companies that don’t comply.

“The idea,” Cox insists, “is not to completely keep social media away from kids. That’s not the idea at all. The idea is to make sure that if they are going to use social media, that they’re engaging responsibly, and more importantly, that we’re not destroying their lives, again, with this experiment that social media companies are attempting on our kids.”

No other state has done anything like this yet, but several are taking up the issue. Bills have been introduced in Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey and Texas placing restrictions on what young people can look at online. The Texas bill passed the state House in late April. California enacted a law last year that regulates Internet companies in the interests of protecting teen users’ privacy. Louisiana has a law providing that websites that include pornography must verify that their users are at least 18.

It’s pretty obvious that there is a problem. A survey by Common Sense Media in 2021 found that social media use by children 8 to 12 years old stood at 38 percent. The Pew Research Center has reported that many teens from 13 to 18 were on the Internet at least eight hours a day. It also reported that 95 percent of teenagers had been on YouTube, and that 19 percent said they were on it “almost constantly.”

In whistleblower testimony before Congress in 2021, former Facebook executive Frances Haugen told Congress that Facebook’s own research showed its sites could be linked to teenage anxiety and depression. The prominent medical journalist Dr. Leana S. Wen has cited studies concluding that nearly 3 in 10 teenage girls had reported persistent feelings of sadness, and that troublesome experiences on the Internet were in large part responsible. “If we are serious about addressing the alarming worsening of teens’ mental health,” Wen wrote in March, “we must reduce their social media use.”

SO THERE MAY SOON BE NEW STATE LAWS similar to the one just enacted in Utah. The questions are about whether they can work. One of those questions is constitutional: Will the courts ultimately allow governments to police the online habits of teenagers? Does this form of Internet regulation violate the First Amendment? Critics are already lining up to make the case that it does. The Utah laws, says Evan Greer, who leads a group called Fighting for the Future, “radically undermine the constitutional and human rights of young people.” He and others say the real issue is an invasion of teen privacy.

Utah is already preparing for the legal challenges that are sure to come. Gov. Cox said recently that he can’t wait to thrash the issue out in court. Utah plans to argue that teenage Internet use is an addictive activity that damages young people in the same way opioids and tobacco do, and courts have had little trouble with regulation of those substances. Social media, the state will say, should be treated just the same.

It may not be an easy case to win. Opioids and tobacco kill people. Teen use of the Internet leads to some fatal results, but they are indirect and have no physical correlation. On the other hand, we impose all sorts of legal restrictions on teenagers that we would never apply to adults. They can’t drive until they are at least 16 in most states, and we make it illegal for them to drink until they are 21. Courts have shown no hesitation in upholding these sorts of restrictions, either at the state or local level.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
The point of Utah's new law, says Gov. Spencer Cox, “is not to keep social media away from kids” but to protect young people from “this experiment that social media companies are attempting on our kids.”
(Utah Governor’s Office)

There is a case pending in the Supreme Court right now that has some bearing on the Utah situation. It doesn’t involve teenagers, but it is all about regulation of the Internet. Texas enacted a law in 2021 that bars Internet companies over a certain size from removing a user from their websites for expressing a viewpoint, no matter how strenuously citizens may object. A federal appeals court upheld the law, and the high court has let it stand pending a final decision. On the one hand, the Texas law is an endorsement of free Internet speech, and that might work against Utah-style policing. On the other hand, the appeals court essentially said the state could do what it wanted. And the decisions don’t necessarily predict what the high court would do when teens are involved.

Actually, there is a federal law on the subject, and it has been there for a quarter century. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 requires Internet providers to make sure they are not interfering with the privacy of young users, and imposes penalties of $50,000 per violation if they are caught doing it. But not many offenders have been punished, and most crucially, the law applies only to children under 13. So it isn’t a great deal of help with the current problem.

The other major issue for the Utah law is whether it is enforceable. A provision asking teens to verify their age is vulnerable to all sorts of subterfuge. Users can lie about their ages. They can forge parental signatures. Even if a legitimate adult permission slip exists, how does the company know that it came from the actual parent or guardian? It may be possible to plug these loopholes, but nothing in the Utah law as enacted provides any guidance to the process of closing them.

IT MAY BE, AS LEANA WEN AND OTHERS WARN US, that social media are a threat to teenage well-being and societal cohesion unlike any form of communication that has existed before. But it is only fair to point out that we have faced warnings of this kind in generation after generation. Consider the years after World War II, seen by many people as an epoch of order and stability.

J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director and the nation’s leading law enforcement official, began zeroing in on teenage pathology in 1948, when he lamented that teenagers were enmeshed in “the dreaded maze of delinquency and disease, of reformatory and prison, or if they are not apprehended, of maiming and plundering.” Four years later, he warned that “the nation can expect an appalling increase in the number of crimes that will be committed by teenagers in the years ahead.”

Not only were teenagers in trouble, Hoover and others believed, but new forms of media were branded as the culprit. Although it may be hard to believe, what they saw as the primary culprit was comic books. In 1954, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a hysterical warning that comic books were the source of an increase in vicious behavior among adolescents. He denounced comics as “short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape ... and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality and horror.”

The important point is not that these jeremiads were silly. The important point is that millions of Americans accepted them. Even so, they had little appreciable effect on the products: Batman and the Incredible Hulk stayed on the newsstand racks, and there was no appreciable spike in teenage mayhem.

In order to join the Utah movement for teen media regulation, we need to convince ourselves that the dangers of adolescent Internet use are qualitatively different from the dangers we have conjured up in the past. Maybe they are. Back in 2018, the social critic Derek Thompson made a compelling point about the insidious quality of teenage media use. “It was once sufficient to look good in a high school hallway,” Thompson recalled, “but today, Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram are high school hallways, where young people perform and see performances, judge and are judged.” The implication is that this revolution in teen media use is the primary source of the anxiety, depression and self-destructive behavior that adolescents are currently experiencing.

So we generate regulatory regimes like the one that Utah has started. I sympathize with the idea, but based on past results, I have to question how much the environment will really change. We have passed a host of laws prohibiting young people from drinking alcohol until they are 21, and all of us know that underage drinking is ubiquitous in this country. When millions of people are determined to break a law, they usually find a way to break it. Maybe social media will turn out to be different. But history seems to suggest otherwise.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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