Utah became the first state to pass a law limiting how children can use social media.
The two bills Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law on March 23, which are scheduled to take effect on March 1, 2024, bar children under 18 from using social media between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. They also require either age verification or parental permission for those who want to use social media in Utah and prevent addictive features that may attract children from being added to the apps.
The main reason behind these laws is the mental well-being of younger generations.
We can understand the rationale behind this argument. It would be unfair of us not to admit that social media impacts mental health, and as a generation that grew up using social media, it is in our best interest to make sure the generations following us do not face the same troubles we do.
According to research reported in JAMA Psychiatry, adolescents who use social media more than three hours a day “may be at heightened risk of mental health problems, particularly internalizing problems.”
Based on this research, it is easy to see why legislators may think the easy solution would be to simply ban or restrict the use of social media among children.
But is it actually effective?
Although social media has its faults, we cannot ignore the benefits that come with it. For example, a primary use of social media is for connection, whether it be with friends or family. If that is taken away, kids may feel isolated from their peers.
In the case of Utah, that isolation will only be exacerbated by the knowledge that teenagers in other states are able to use social media and connect uninhibitedly. These feelings of seclusion and missing out can be difficult to deal with as a teenager.
With the apparent shortcomings in the recently passed bill, we should look to other states to find examples of more effective solutions.
Though Utah is the first state to pass a law directed toward regulating consumers, they are not the first to consider legislation relating to social media use.
The California state legislature is debating a bill in response to fears over children’s declining mental health as a result of social media. However, instead of restricting the social media use of teenagers, the bill works to regulate the companies that promote problematic social media use in the first place.
If passed, the bill would require social media companies to perform audits to demonstrate they are not causing social media addiction in minors. It would also pave a way for social media companies to be punished for allowing content that could be harmful to children.
These companies could face fines of up to $250,000 for each piece of content that would allow minors to purchase illegal drugs, promote the development of eating disorders, lead to or cause self-harm, or receive content that may allow them to illegally purchase firearms.
With different social media policies in different states, it can become confusing for both companies and consumers. There seems to be a disconnect between where representatives in different states stand on social media usage and the impact it has on society.
Wouldn’t it be best if social media companies and users were given the same set of rules throghout the country?
While hope for any meaningful federal action is unrealistic, we would like to see legislation passed akin to the bill being considered in California. While Utah places a band-aid on the problem of unhealthy social media use among teenagers, California tries to mend the wound and find a way for all Americans to enjoy the benefits of social media without being subject to harmful content.
With a topic as nuanced and complicated as social media regulation — which would require more time and space to analyze than we have in this editorial — it is likely that the best solution is not to put the full burden of regulation on either companies or consumers, but rather to curb predatory business practices while also working to limit the proliferation of harmful content by users.
For now, the use of social media is in the complete control of those who wield it, for better or worse.