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Utah Bills Would Let Parents Sue Social Media Companies

Amendments to the Utah Social Media Regulation Act would allow lawsuits if it can be proven that “addictive social media algorithms” contributed to the worsening of a child’s mental health. Related laws have been stopped in two other states.

A young child laying down and looking at a tablet while wearing earbuds plugged into it.
Amendments to a landmark Utah bill that would let parents sue social media companies for their impact on children’s mental health have cleared the statehouse and are headed to the governor’s desk.

State elected officials approved House Bill 464, Social Media Amendments to the 2023 Utah Social Media Regulation Act, on March 1. It enables parents to bring a lawsuit against a social media company if they can prove that “a Utah minor (a person under the age of 18) has been diagnosed with an adverse mental health outcome by a licensed mental health provider and that the adverse mental health outcome was caused by the minor’s excessive use of an algorithmically curated social media service.”

The amendment also introduces provisions allowing social media companies to avoid liability if they implement specific restrictions on their platforms. These include limiting minors’ use to a maximum of three hours in 24 hours across all devices; restricting a minor’s account from accessing “an algorithmically curated social media service” between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.; disabling engagement-driven, addictive design elements for a minor such as autoplay for videos in social media feeds; and requiring the parent or legal guardian of the minor to consent to the minor’s account usage.

Lawmakers also approved a second amendment to the Social Media Regulation Act on March 1, Senate Bill 194. It provides further directives to social media companies on platform safety and parental engagement with minors. The amendment adds clarity on what an “age verification system” is, indicating that it must be defined as “measures reasonably calculated to enable a social media company to identify whether a user is a minor with an accuracy rate of at least 95 percent.” And it requires social media companies to disable certain addictive product features for minor accounts, require default privacy settings for minors, and agree to not share or sell a minor’s data without parental consent.

The amendments are now headed to the desk of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, where he will have 20 days to sign or veto them. State Rep. Jordan Teuscher joined three colleagues in sponsoring both.

“Our No. 1 goal is to protect minors from the harmful impacts of social media,” Teuscher said in a press release. “H.B. 464 and S.B. 194 put important safeguards in place to protect Utah’s children and give social media companies time to comply. Utah will continue to lead the nation in finding innovative solutions to complex challenges.” In the press release, the sponsors asserted that social media platforms are intentionally designed to cultivate user addiction, including among children, in pursuit of profits.

While the amendments in H.B. 464 and S.B. 194 have technically been passed, they still face opposition from free speech advocates who are actively challenging them — a path somewhat similar to the Social Media Regulation Act.

Cox signed the act into law last year and it was scheduled to take effect March 1. But after legal challenges from NetChoice — a tech advocacy group representing TikTok, Meta, and X — the governor changed the implementation date to Oct. 1 via S.B. 89, Social Media Modifications.

Critics of the Social Media Regulations Act and social media safety laws in other states have argued, generally, that regulating these platforms is difficult, and warned of potential privacy and censorship issues. They have also said the measures may inadvertently lead minors to explore other unmonitored platforms. Currently, the act is set to take effect in a little more than six months, irrespective of ongoing lawsuits — and if that happens, it may avoid the fates of similar legislation in Arkansas and Ohio.

The Social Media Safety Act, signed into law in Arkansas last year, would have required social media companies to use third-party vendors to do age verification checks on any users creating new accounts. A federal judge stopped it days before it took effect, with a temporary injunction on behalf of NetChoice.

In Ohio, the Parental Notification by Social Media Operators Act became law Jan. 15, and mandated social media platforms get parental consent if a person creating a new account is under age 16. However, in response to a NetChoice lawsuit, a federal judge on Feb. 12 blocked enforcement indefinitely.