State lawmakers are trying to protect kids online. Will it work?
‘Any parent who thinks they are smarter technically than a 17-year-old doesn’t know their 17-year-old,’ an industry expert said
A teenager uses a laptop with a phone nearby. States are passing laws designed to keep kids away from social media and porn sites, but the effectiveness of the laws is being questioned by opponents and challenged in court (Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images).
To address the harmful effects of pornography and social media on children, states are passing laws meant to keep kids off certain sites and to block them from adult content.
But the efforts face major hurdles — and real questions about whether the proposed solutions would even work.
Some of the measures would require parental permission for minors to access certain websites. Others call for tech companies to install obscenity filters on devices sold to minors. Lawmakers have passed legislation in both blue and red states, from California to Texas.
Two of the most stringent laws already face legal challenges over free speech and privacy considerations.
Critics also say the laws go too far in undermining parental rights – ceding control to the state. And there are the practical concerns that kids, being generally more technologically savvy than their parents, will find ways to circumvent even the most tightly drawn laws.
“It’s something more like, ‘I’m doing something about tech [problems]’ than a real crackdown,” said Max Rieper, legislative analyst for MultiState, a government relations firm focusing on states. “Kids know how to get around these laws,” he added, mentioning virtual private networks (VPNs) as just one way.
Rieper suggested a federal law would be somewhat more effective than a patchwork of state laws or regulations. But a bill in Congress to tackle underage use of social media has gotten nowhere.
Social media dangers for kids are well documented. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory last month saying that social media can harm the “mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” He noted that social media use among kids and teens is “nearly universal,” with up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds reporting using a social media platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the like.
State lawmakers have been trying to address the issue. California last year enacted into law a sweeping measure designed to force tech companies to install child protections — such as turning on the highest level of privacy settings and forbidding collection of children’s precise locations unless the user is aware that such data is being collected — on products including games, social networks, voice assistants and educational digital learning devices.
Opponents said the new law — the first of its kind in the country — is too broad and impossible to enforce.
The law calls for civil penalties, including fines, for companies that fail to comply. Some manufacturers suggested they might have to retool products that are sold across the country rather than install special software for California.
The technology trade group NetChoice sued in December to block the law. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing the surgeon general’s advisory, called on the group to drop the suit.
Lawmakers in Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas filed bills this year to require companies to install obscenity filters on all types of devices that can be turned on when sold if the device will be used by a minor, according to tracking by MultiState. However, the Florida, Idaho and Montana bills died.
Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed similar legislation in 2021, but the bill included a requirement that it will not take effect unless at least five additional states adopt their own bills. So far, none has, although a bill did pass the Alabama House and is now in the state Senate.
Utah is the latest state to enact two laws aimed at blocking minors from porn sites and keeping kids away from social media unless they have explicit parental sign-off. Parental permission laws require proof, such as a digital ID, that the user is a legal adult before being allowed on social media platforms.
If a Utah minor wants to sign up, companies must get parental consent. The law also requires the companies to lock minors out of social media accounts between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., based on the location of the user’s device, unless a parent specifies different hours.
In April, Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a measure that bars social media companies from allowing minors to hold accounts without parental consent.
A Texas parental consent bill is on the governor’s desk but was unsigned as of June 7.
And Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in April signed two bills designed to block minors’ access to online pornography.
Some are criticizing the legislation as an unconstitutional assault on freedom of speech.
As soon as the Utah porn age verification bill became law, a group called the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the pornography industry, filed suit asking for enforcement to be halted.
“We filed suit because this is blatantly unconstitutional, and two, it’s an unreasonable restriction on otherwise legal speech,” Mike Stabile, director of public affairs for the group, said in a phone interview. “Not only does it affect what people think of as the adult industry, it affects sex educators and free speech. We want to protect kids from accessing adult content as well, but this is ineffective and potentially dangerous.”
The court has not ruled yet on the coalition’s request for an injunction halting enforcement of the law.
Also shortly after the Utah law took effect, the adult movie site Pornhub stopped doing business in the state. In a video to consumers who tried to log on from Utah, the company said restricting access by using identifying information is the wrong way to go, and endorsed device-control at the point of sale for minors instead.
After Pornhub shut down in Utah, Google searches for virtual private networks, which allow a user to mask their location and other identifying data, spiked in the state, according to Business Insider. Minors who want to access sites limited under the new state law can use VPNs as a workaround.
Utah Republican state Sen. Mike McKell, author of the social media bill, is confident the measure can withstand legal scrutiny. He also said questions over enforcement can be tackled with class-action lawsuits against social media sites that fail to provide mechanisms to keep kids out without parental permission.
The law already provides that media companies that don’t comply can be fined by the State Division of Consumer Protection.
“I’ve been concerned with social media for a long time,” he said in a phone interview. “We have a mental health crisis and Utah is no exception.”
He said he is aware that the new law “will never capture every kid,” but said it put the onus on tech companies to ascertain the age of people who access their sites. “I’m guessing tech companies will want to avoid class action lawsuits and I’m guessing they will help us figure it out.”
McKell said social media sites already collect private information, so requiring them to ask users for proof of age isn’t much different.
And, addressing the issue of parental control being ceded to the government, he said he believes the new law “empowers” parents to keep their kids off social media if they want to. “You need parental permission to get a library card; if you want your kid to go skiing, you need parental permission.”
In Louisiana, a bill calling for fines against porn sites that fail to verify users aren’t minors is on the governor’s desk; a law requiring IDs to view adult material already went into effect last year. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to sign the fines bill.
Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, said in a phone interview that while the bills are well intentioned, “at the end of the day, my wife and I should be the ones deciding what’s appropriate for my family, not somebody in a state capital, not somebody in Silicon Valley.”
Szabo called for requiring social media education in schools and making the same information available to parents so they can learn too, pointing to laws in two states. Florida’s law calls for including such units in courses on computer use and literacy. Virginia law requires lessons on internet use and safety.
He called parental permission laws and age verification laws naïve.
“It’s the ‘burying the head in the sand’ approach to parenting. Any parent who thinks they are smarter technically than a 17-year-old doesn’t know their 17-year-old.”
Szabo, who has two children, ages 7 and 10, said he has learned from personal experience how savvy kids can be. He bought a digital picture frame so he could look at rotating digital pictures in his home. The kids figured out how to get on YouTube from the picture frame, forcing him to remove the item from his home.
“There’s a reason it’s now in my office,” he said.
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