top of page
  • Writer's pictureSam Castor

Protecting Children from Social Media

Utah's Social Media Regulation Act: Too little too late?

The Utah Social Media Regulation Act is a unique legislative effort to protect children against the pernicious and pervasive influence of social media on youth. Utah’s nascent legislation aims to mitigate the adverse effects social media platforms often have on minors, their self-esteem, and mental health, and harm to their families, amid growing concerns about children's mental health, increased child suicides, and rising health costs. The Act's recent repeal and replacement highlight ongoing debates about the best regulatory approach to balance the benefits and harms of social media use among young people.

The Problem: Social Media's Impact on Children's Mental Health

Over the last 20 years, social media has had profound (and devastating) effects on society–particularly on children and adolescents. Numerous studies document a correlation (if not direct causal link) between social media use and mental health issues among young users. For instance, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that excessive social media increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances in adolescents. The immersive nature of these platforms, combined with the pressures of social comparison and cyberbullying, has exacerbated mental health issues in this vulnerable population.

These consequences are not shocking as recent congressional investigations have exposed how Facebook, and TikTok have been intentionally exploiting the minds of youth and adults with algorithms that amplify contention and other negative and destructive emotions because those types of digital activities generate more user interaction (aka more revenue for Facebook), with even more harmful effects forecasted on the horizon.

In Utah, alarming statistics underscore these national trends. According to the Utah Department of Health, Utah has experienced a significant increase in youth suicide rates over the past decade, with social media as a clear contributing factor. The incessant exposure to “picture perfect” images that create a false reality, and the constant pursuit of online validation and connection from “likes” and “followers” have created an environment teeming with mental health stresses and struggles. What’s worse, cyberbullying incidents have surged, as the anonymity of online activity allows for key board cowards, to shout from the side lines, destroy the confidence of their peers, and cause devastating consequences for many families and youth. Especially as many youth turned to social media platforms to find societal connection during the quarantines pandemic. 



The cost has been substantial. The rising need for mental health treatment for Utah adolescents has become a significant burden on Utah's healthcare system. The Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health reports escalating costs associated with treating depression, anxiety, and other social media-related disorders. This is not alone to Utah. These trends indicate a national crisis, where the cost of treating social media induced mental health trauma is estimated to be in the billions of dollars annually.

Social Media Platforms – The New Smoking? 

Like the Big Tabacco billion-dollar damages awards of the early 2000s, social media platforms like TikTok and Facebook seem poised for similar liability with many declaring that social media is the new smoking. Even the New York Times declares that “scrolling is the new smoking.” This liability has grown in light of social media’s undeniable impact on young users. TikTok, with its algorithmically curated content, often exposes children to potentially harmful material, ranging from dangerous challenges to inappropriate content. Facebook (Meta), has faced criticism for its misinformation spreading, cyberbullying enabling, and unhealthy comparison fostering algorithms – geared toward causing harm to create revenue.





Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Anxious Generation, discusses how these platforms contribute to the rising levels of anxiety and depression among adolescents. Haidt points out that the constant barrage of notifications, likes, and shares creates a feedback loop that reinforces feelings of inadequacy and social pressure. Furthermore, Haidt cites studies showing that heavy social media use correlates with increased feelings of loneliness and lower self-esteem (Haidt, 2020).





Interestingly, even tech leaders like Steve Jobs recognized the potential harm of these technologies. Jobs famously restricted his own children's use of iPhones and iPads, highlighting the irony that the creators of these platforms were wary of their effects on young minds.

Legislative Defense: The Utah Social Media Regulation Act

Trailblazing to the defense of its children, the Utah Legislature enacted the Social Media Regulation Act. Designed hold platforms responsible for the negative impact of social media on minors, the Act mandated several key measures including (i) age verification; (ii) usage restrictions, and (iii) data privacy protections:

  1. Age Verification and Parental Consent: Social media platforms were required to implement robust age verification mechanisms and obtain parental consent for users under the age of 18.

  2. Usage Restrictions: Limits were placed on the amount of time minors could spend on social media platforms, with enforced curfews to prevent usage during late-night hours.

  3. Data Privacy Protections: The Act imposed strict regulations on the collection and use of minors' personal data, aiming to safeguard their privacy and prevent exploitation.

Unsurprisingly, the Act faced stiff and immediate pushback from social media companies and civil liberties groups. Critics argued that the regulations were overly restrictive and potentially unconstitutional, leading to several legal challenges. One notable case, Doe v. Utah, saw plaintiffs argue that the Act infringed on minors' First Amendment rights and parental autonomy. The court's ruling underscored the complexities of balancing regulatory efforts with constitutional protections.

So, in 2024, the Utah Legislature repealed and replaced the original Social Media Regulation Act, to address the criticisms and legal challenges it faced. The new legislation, incorporated several changes:

  1. Enhanced Parental Controls: The revised Act emphasized empowering parents with more control over their children's social media usage, rather than imposing blanket restrictions.

  2. Improved Age Verification Technology: The new law required social media companies to adopt more sophisticated age verification technologies, reducing the burden on users and parents.

  3. Mental Health Resources: Instead of imposing a presumption of harm, the Act mandated that social media platforms offer access to mental health resources and crisis intervention services.

These changes were designed to create a more balanced approach, address the root causes of the mental health crisis, but also respecting constitutional rights. However, it still seems too little, too late, and given the recent U.S. Surgeon General’s warning that “scrolling is the new smoking” finding ways to protect citizens from technology platforms that find profit in treating children like objects, is far from over.



 

See Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2019). Media Use and Child and Adolescent Mental Health: Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, Journal of the American Medical Association.

2See MIT Technology Review, “The Facebook whistleblower says its algorithms are dangerous. Here’s why.” available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/10/05/1036519/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-algorithms/ (last visited June 22, 2024)

3 “TikTok’s Danger to Teens in Focus During US Congressional Hearing”, Reuters, available at https://www.reuters.com/technology/tiktok-ceo-grilled-by-us-lawmakers-over-dangerous-content-2023-03-23/ (last visited June 22, 2024).

4See “Themes: The most harmful or menacing changes in digital life that are likely by 2035.”https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2023/06/21/themes-the-most-harmful-or-menacing-changes-in-digital-life-that-are-likely-by-2035/

See “Utah’s battle against the mental health care provider deficit” available at https://www.utahbusiness.com/utahs-battle-against-the-mental-health-care-provider-deficit/; see also “The Rapid Evolution of Crisis Mental Health Services in Utah: Opportunities and Challenges as a Result of the Global Pandemic,” available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10172528/ (last visited June 22, 2024). 

See Chatterjee, R., & Price, S. (2019). The economic impact of mental health issues linked to social media. Journal of the American Medical Association.

7 See “Big Tabacoo Lawsuit”, American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network, available at https://www.fightcancer.org/what-we-do/big-tobacco-lawsuit

See “It’s starting to look like using smartphones in schools will be the new smoking in the bathroom” https://fortune.com/2024/06/20/smartphones-in-schools-new-smoking-in-the-bathroom-surgeon-general-vivek-murthy-california-gavin-newsom/

9 See “Is Social Media the New Tobacco?”, New York Times, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2024/06/17/business/dealbook/social-media-tobacco-acohol-warning-labels.html

10 See “Hidden Side of Steve Jobs And Bill Gates: They Banned Their Kids From iPads And Other Devices They Created”, Yahoo Finance, available at https://finance.yahoo.com/news/hidden-side-steve-jobs-bill-165424007.html (last visited June 22, 2023). 

1 view0 comments

Comentários


bottom of page