Social media restrictions for kids face practicality, privacy challenges

Florida lawmakers are considering a bill to restrict minors’ use of the platforms, but critics of other efforts say they're unworkable and could leave personal information vulnerable.

Image by Marie from Pixabay

Utah recently became the first state in the nation to pass a law restricting minors’ use of social media platforms – and Florida could soon be another – but critics have raised concerns about whether the effort is practical and if it could expose the personal information of the state's social media users.

GOP Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed legislation last month requiring that social media platforms verify the age of all users in the state before they open an account and that anyone under 18 get parental permission before opening an account. 

The law also sets a curfew between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. that restricts minors’ use of social media unless a parent changes that setting; and it lets parents access minors’ accounts and restricts what personal information platforms can collect. After the Utah law goes into effect next year, every social media user in the state will be required to verify their age to continue using their accounts.

Several other states are looking to follow Utah’s lead in restricting young people’s use of social media to varying degrees, including Texas and Arkansas, while a federal bill to ban the platforms’ use by all those under 16 also was recently introduced by U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.

In Florida, a bill (SB 52) by Republican state Sen. Danny Burgess would prohibit student access to social-media platforms through school devices. The measure would require the Florida Department of Education to make instruction on “social media safety” available for students and school districts would be required to notify parents of the online resources.

The instruction would have to be “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate” for students in sixth through 12th grades and focus on the “social, emotional, and physical effects” of social media. The instruction also would be required to include lessons about advantages of social-media use, including career and resume-building, and risks including addiction, publication of misinformation and negative effects on mental health.

The bill has cleared three different committees on unanimous votes and is ready for the Senate floor. 

Burgess has said social media has a “pervasive influence” on young people’s everyday lives: "As parents, it is getting increasingly harder to protect your kids and shield them from the realities of the world. And it is something that we struggle to do alone, because this is an ever-evolving field in the digital world."

And another bill called the “Student Online Personal Information Protection Act” also is ready for the full Senate. That bill (SB 662) seeks to restrict the way that operators of websites and online applications used in schools can collect and use students’ data. 

California law hits legal speed bump; tech advocates unconvinced

California last year passed legislation to clamp down on the use of minors’ personal information and to reduce manipulative design that could encourage addiction to platforms, but the bill is currently mired in a legal challenge.

But advocacy groups are not convinced that leveraging technology to verify people’s ages before they use online services like social media is workable. A fact sheet produced by NetChoice, an open internet advocacy group, argued that every user would first be required to upload identifying documents like government-issued ID or biometrics, then have those documents verified by a third party working with the government.

Then, NetChoice argued that data would likely be stored so that users could access an age-restricted social media service without having to verify their age each time, a practice the organization warned could put residents’ personal information at risk. Similar measures to require age verification to visit adult entertainment websites have raised the same privacy concerns.

In a statement after Cox signed the Utah legislation, Nicole Saad Bembridge, associate director of the NetChoice Litigation Center, said the law would require “massive data collection on all Utahns, creating a honeypot of sensitive information that can be captured and misused by malicious actors.” And Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the progressive tech industry group Chamber of Progress, said in an interview it appears that lawmakers in the state have traded away privacy protections in a bid to try to restrict minors’ use of social media.

For its part, the Utah bill requires the state’s Division of Consumer Protection to establish a process to verify users’ ages, develop acceptable forms of identification and determine “requirements for retaining, protecting, and securely disposing of any information obtained by a social media company or its agent.” The division must also require that any information retained is “only retained for the purpose of compliance.”

Instead of using what he described as a “blunt instrument” to protect kids on social media, Kovacevich said the efforts of platforms like YouTube and streaming services to create “nested accounts” specifically aimed at children could be a good model as it restricts some of the content they can view without completely restricting access to the site.

While Kovacevich acknowledged the teen mental health crisis is sparked in part by social media, he said legislation that restricts its use among minors treats it as being “de facto harmful to teenagers,” which is not the case. Rather, he said the legislation seems to be driven by “moral panics.” He noted that the Pew Research Center found last year that teenagers are broadly positive about social media and the connections they can make online.

“But for legislators to act with an eye only to the negative experiences, and to ignore the teenagers who are saying that they have positive experiences online, I think is missing part of the story,” Kovacevich said.

The News Service of Florida contributed background. A version of this story was first published on GCN

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