Utah Law to Protect Children’s Privacy Will Violate Everyone’s Privacy
Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed a bill into law that will require minors to obtain parental consent to use social media. Social media platforms will have to verify the ages of all users in Utah and restrict access to anyone under the age of 18 without their parents’ permission. This will require all Utahns, not just those under 18, to give up their personal information as a condition of using social media, violating everyone’s privacy in the name of protecting children.
In addition to requiring age verification and parental consent, the bill, S.B. 152, forbids social media companies from advertising or suggesting content to children, showing minors’ accounts in search results, or collecting personal information on minors other than information required to comply with the bill’s other provisions. The bill also prohibits minors from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., unless their parents modify these hours, or sending or receiving direct messages from users who are not on their friends list. Finally, the bill allows parents to access their children’s social media accounts and restrict the number of hours their children can spend on social media.
Although the bill may be well-intentioned in striving to protect children from online harms, there are a number of problems with it. First, children still have First Amendment rights to free expression and access to information. Most social media platforms require users to be over the age of 13, so S.B. 152 would primarily affect teenagers. Much of modern communication and discourse takes place online, and under S.B. 152, Utah teenagers would lose access to the online spaces that facilitate important aspects of their social lives if their parents don’t give consent.
Second, giving parents’ unlimited access to their children’s social media presence takes away from children’s privacy. While parents should ensure their children are using social media in a safe way, as children grow older, a healthy degree of privacy is important for their development. Older children—those most likely to use social media—need spaces where they can express themselves without parental surveillance in order to exercise their autonomy and develop their identity.
In addition, S.B. 152 ignores that, unfortunately, not all parents have their children’s best interests in mind. Many LGBTQ children live in unsupportive households and are more likely to experience bullying from their peers, meaning online spaces can be their only source of community and support. Prohibiting these older teenagers from accessing social media without parental surveillance could endanger their physical and emotional wellbeing.
Finally, though it includes measures intended to protect children’s privacy by limiting the amount of information social media companies can collect on them, S.B. 152 would damage privacy by requiring social media platforms to collect information from every user in Utah in order to verify their age. Users who do not want to give up that information, or who do not have a form of identification that proves their age, would lose access to social media. As many as 7 percent of Americans do not have government-issued photo identification, and teenagers who are not old enough to qualify for a driver’s license may not have any form of identification. The United States currently lacks a federal government-backed electronic identification system that would make it easier for Americans to prove their identity online, although Utah has recently launched an optional mobile driver’s license program that serves as a step in the right direction.
In seeking to protect children, lawmakers should avoid placing unnecessary barriers to free speech, free access to information, and privacy for individuals of all ages. S.B. 152 fails to strike the right balance on child safety and will be detrimental to many Utahns.