By: Anitra Varhadkar
On March 23, 2023, Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed the Social Media Regulation Act (H.B. 311 and S.B. 152) (“the Bill”), arguably one of the most aggressive bills targeted at limiting the social media usage of children under the age of 18. The Bill, which is one of the first in the nation, leaves the fate of children’s social media use entirely to their parents or legal guardians.
The Utah Bill, Decoded.
Though the Bill is filled with stringent new requirements aimed at building a safer online experience for minors, some seem to stick out more than others. Spanning an extensive 40 lines of the Bill, Utah legislators require all account holders to go through an extensive age verification process, and anyone under the age of 18 will now need the “express consent of a parent or guardian” to create their accounts. And while parental consent is nothing new, the Bill takes this one step further by allowing parents access to the private messages of their children’s account.
In addition to requirements for account holders, social media companies have a host of requirements to abide by, including: (1) strict restrictions on the advertising (their main source of revenue) minor accounts are exposed to and (2) creating a default setting to “block minors from accessing their accounts from 10:30 pm to 6:30 am,” which can only be reversed by parents. Enforcement is punitive as well, with social media companies subject to both private actions and an administrative fine of $2,500 per violation.
The Utah Legislature consistently cites the youth mental health crisis as a driving force of the Bill, noting that social media has only amplified this crisis in recent years. Opponents, however, raise a fundamentally different argument. Though all parties acknowledge that youth mental health measures are necessary, opponents argue that the Bill’s tactics are far from congruent to the stated purpose. Influential to their opposition was the “California Age-Appropriate Design Code,” which pioneered a movement to ensure safe media platforms for children. The legislation, to be deployed in 2024, will require social media platforms to create heightened privacy features for minors that cannot be easily turned off. Utah, on the other hand, is seemingly attempting to both mitigate the potential negative effects of social media and entirely prevent kids, especially teenagers, from accessing social media—potentially a source of grave consequences for Utah minors.
Psychologists have reported the detrimental mental health effects of social media on young women especially for decades, with social scientists concluding that social media is exponentially increasing the likelihood of body dysmorphia for young girls. And yet, over 15 years since the first study was released, Utah’s legislature is only now taking such drastic measures. The timing is almost picturesque, with the Bill arriving in the midst of Congressional hearings regarding TikTok’s “national security risk” and only months after the actions taken by Governor DeSantis in Florida on academic censorship. This slippery trajectory unfortunately begs the question— is this where censorship in the United States is heading?
It is no secret that social media, despites all of its woes, has been tremendously useful as a catalyst for social movements and as an information source for much of the world. Domestically, we have seen millions rally on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram—whether for racial justice in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, or for reproductive justice following the fall of Roe v. Wade. On an international scale too the power of social media has been revolutionary, with movements like “Women, Life, Freedom” from Iran gaining incredible traction on social media platforms. In Iran specifically, platforms have both educated the globe on the daily injustices Iranian women face, as well as undeniably given a voice to those on the ground.
While the premise of Utah minors being cut off from information sources on social media is jarring, it is when this measure is put in the context of surrounding legislative action that it becomes truly bone-chilling. In Florida, Governor DeSantis’ has taken sweeping actions to censor public education through his now infamously coined “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.” By way of background, his policies have created a parent-friendly system, where parents, rather than licensed educators, would be influential in deciding what topics are covered in school curriculum and what books the library is “allowed” to carry. Prohibited topics include critical race theory and gender/sexual orientation education, while stringent limits are put on how race in the United States is taught.
However, the students in Florida still have access to their social media, seemingly allowing them to be exposed to educational tools and informational videos that inform them of these so-called “prohibited topics.” The importance of social media here can be readily seen with LGBTQ+ minors, who have been outspoken about finding and connecting with community members through their accounts—often a source of life-saving support, education, and resources. If, however, Florida imposed a similar bill to that of Utah, all of these resources, whether it be for education, support, or otherwise, will: (1) only be available if parents/guardians allow access and (2) be far from private, as parents have access to account messaging and posts.
Whether the intention of the Utah legislature was censorship or not can remain up for debate, but the consequences of their actions cannot. As other states begin to follow suit, only time will tell just how negative an impact these bills will have on the future generations.
 S.B. 152, 2023 Leg., 498 Sess. (Utah 2023) [hereinafter “Utah Act”].
 Natasha Singer, Utah Law Could Curb Use of TikTok and Instagram by Children and Teens, N.Y. TIMES (Mar. 23, 2023).
 Utah Act, supra note 1, at 239-305.
 Id. at 302-05.
 In the Act, a “social media company” is defined as “a person or entity that: (a) provides a social media platform that has at least 5,000,000 account holders worldwide; and (b) is an interactive computer service.” Utah Act, supra note 1, at 310-11.
 Utah Act, supra note 1, at 310-11.
 Utah Act, supra note 1, at 341.
 Nicholas Reimann, Utah Bans Teens Under 18 From Social Media Without Parental Consent, FORBES (Mar. 23, 2023) https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicholasreimann/2023/03/23/utah-bans-teens-under-18-from-social-media-without-parental-consent/?sh=7b56295179d3.
 Id. (“But 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.”).
 Natahsa Singer, Tech Trade Group Sues California to Halt Children’s Online Safety Law, N.Y. TIMES (Dec. 14, 2022).
 See generally Utah Act, supra note 1.
 See Richard Strauss & Harold Pollack, Social Marginalization of Overweight Children, Arch Pediatric Adolescent Medical (2003). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/481398
 Sapna Maheshwari, What to Know About Today’s Congressional Hearing on TikTok, N.Y. TIMES (Mar. 23, 2023) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/23/technology/tiktok-congress-hearing.html
 Belle Liang, Using Social Media to Engage Youth: Education, Social Justice, & Humanitarianism, 17 THE PREVENTION RESEARCHER (2010).
 Tyler T. Reny, The Opinion-Mobilizing Effect of Social Protest Against Police Violence: Evidence from the 2020 George Floyd Protests, 115 AM. POL. SCI. REV. 1499 (Jun. 08, 2021) (“several of the attributes of the Floyd protests that make it unique (e.g., scale and media coverage) also arguably render it more likely than other episodes of protest to exert the broad effect on public opinion”).
 Marie Lamensch, In Iran, Women Deploy Social Media in the Fight for Rights, CTR. FOR INT’L GOV. INNOVATION (Nov. 16, 2022) https://www.cigionline.org/articles/in-iran-women-deploy-social-media-in-the-fight-for-rights/
Sarah Mervosh & Dana Goldstein, Florida Rejects Dozens of Social Studies Textbooks, and Forces Changes in Others, (May 09, 2023) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/09/us/desantis-florida-social-studies-textbooks.html
 Natasha Singer, Utah Law Could Curb Use of TikTok and Instagram by Children and Teens, N.Y. TIMES (Mar. 23, 2023) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/23/technology/utah-social-media-law-tiktok-instagram.html
 Similar laws can be found in Connecticut H.B. 5025 and Ohio’s “Social Media Notification Act.”