Last week, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed sweeping legislation aimed at holding social media companies accountable for how their products affect the mental and physical health and safety of their young users.
In explaining the reasons for the new law, Gov. Cox pointed to rising rates of depression and other mental health issues in teens. Gov. Cox, sounding like early critics of cigarette companies, said social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok know their "products are toxic" and have "designed their apps to be addictive."
SB 152, which goes into effect next year, requires social media companies to verify the age of Utah residents seeking to open or use a social media account, get consent from parents for users under 18, give parents full access to their childrens’ accounts, and create a default curfew setting that blocks access to the apps overnight (10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.)—among other things. Violations of the law will result in hefty fines; the legislation also opens up opportunities for parents to sue social media companies directly for "physical, or emotional harm."
The bill is part of Gov. Cox’s "Utah Home" plan, a new set of priorities for the state’s education system. One goal of the plan is to address rising social media use by minors. "Governments protect kids with seatbelt laws, child labor laws, and alcohol and tobacco restrictions, but have done little to shield minors from the harms of social media," the plan states. In addition to this new legislation, the plan includes encouraging school districts to "consider limiting cell phone use during school."
Evidence for Toxic Impact Is Increasing
The research around cell phone and social media use among young users is increasingly troubling. While some social media activities like video or text chatting with friends appear to have positive impacts—at least in a handful of studies—more social media use is generally linked to poorer academic performance, poor sleep quality and lower self-esteem, more cyberbullying, and a heightened risk for mental health problems, according to studies published within the last decade.
In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released startling data showing that teens—and especially teen girls—are facing significantly more mental health issues compared to teens in the previous decade. According to the data, nearly three in five U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—double the rate of boys, representing a nearly 60 percent increase and the highest level reported over the past decade. Nearly one in three teen girls also seriously considered attempting suicide, also up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago.
Experts who have studied social media and phone use during this period, such as social psychologist, author, and New York University professor Jonathan Haidt, note that the dramatic downturn in measures of teenage well-being coincides with the increased availability of smartphones, and the prominence of social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.
Evidence of these issues even emerged from within social media companies such as Instagram, according to recent reporting. In 2021, the Wall Street Journal reviewed company documents and found that researchers within Instagram concluded that the app is particularly damaging to teenage girls, and can lead to increases in body image issues, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. But Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, repeatedly downplayed the negative effects of the apps and sought to keep the research private, according to the newspaper, while actively strategizing how to attract more users under 13 years old—despite the fact that children of that age are not legally supposed to be on the apps at all.
On Twitter this week, Haidt praised Gov. Cox for his new legislation. "Congress will have to raise the age of ‘internet adulthood’ someday; 13 is way too low. In the meantime, every state should follow Utah: require parental consent for minors to open accounts. We parents of teens are all struggling," he wrote. "Help us out."
Educators in Hopeless Competition With Devices
Since smartphones became a ubiquitous device that nearly every student has in their pocket, schools have been trying a variety of methods to control their misuse. Utah’s new education initiatives seek to "restrict" cell phone use during school, but already districts or schools in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maine, and New York State have introduced total bans of phones, according to an article in Education Next, which stakes out a position against cell phone bans.
In Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Maryland, staff development teacher Christopher Klein has taken a different tack. He recently told Edutopia that he’s trying to educate students on the harmful effects of phones, and even weave that data into instruction. "Helping students see why cell phones are addictive takes away the shame and blame," Klein writes.
But many others, like Patrick Danz, an English teacher at Allen Park High School in Trenton, Michigan, are simply tired of fighting.
Danz told the National Education Association that despite his efforts to educate students about their phone use, and provide incentives for them not to use them in class, he is still in constant competition with cellphones and social media for his students’ attention. "This is a battle throughout the day," Danz said. "And it’s exhausting."
At his high school, Danz said educators have discretion to determine how phones are used in class, which he said has only led to a patchwork of approaches—none of which seem to work. "I think everyone here agrees cellphones are a problem," Danz says. "But some are more resigned to the devices being a constant presence. So, some colleagues are strict, some are more lenient, and others are somewhere in between." Danz told the NEA that he is in favor of a top-down approach, and an outright ban of cellphone usage in schools.
Calls for the federal government to step in and force social media companies like Meta Platforms and ByteDance, which owns TikTok, to make their products less addictive—and available—to teens have been on the rise for years. But so far, no far-reaching federal legislation has been passed, leading states like Utah to consider their own legislative options.
Anger and frustration may have reached critical mass. NPR recently reported that other states, including Ohio, New Jersey, and Louisiana are working on similar bills. Texas and Arkansas, meanwhile, are considering far more aggressive proposals that would impose an outright ban on the use of social media for users under 18.
Utah’s law would require social media companies to design new features to comply with the legislation, NPR reports. Cox, an attorney, said he expects his law to be challenged in court—similar to how California’s law was in 2022—but believes it will hold up.
Already, there have been complaints from the tech industry that Utah's law will infringe on people’s right to privacy and to exercise their First Amendment rights online. Some have pointed out that federal law already prohibits children under 13 from having social media accounts—despite the fact that many get around that law.
But Utah plans to place considerable new hurdles in kids’ way. The state will require social media companies to verify the ages of users and their parental relationships through documents that, according to NPR, could include government issued IDs and birth certificates.
"We have countless protections for our children in the physical world," Gov. Cox wrote in a recent op-ed previewing the new law. "The damage to Generation Z from social media is undeniable—so why are there no protections in the digital world?"