US states' social media laws to protect kids create challenges for platforms

US states' social media laws to protect kids create challenges for platforms<br />
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May 2023

Social media platforms are struggling to navigate a patchwork of US state laws that require them to verify users' ages and give parents more control over their children's accounts.

States including Utah and Arkansas have already passed child social media laws in recent weeks, and similar proposals have been put forward in other states, such as Louisiana, Texas, and Ohio. The legislative efforts are designed to address fears that online platforms are harming the mental health and wellbeing of children and teens amid a rise in teen suicide in the US.

But critics--including the platforms themselves, as well as some children's advocacy groups--argue the measures are poorly drafted and fragmented, potentially leading to a raft of unintended consequences.

One senior staffer at a large tech company who leads its state legislative policy described the patchwork of proposals as "nightmarish [and] nonsensical, if not Kafkaesque."

"Being able to prepare for this with confidence is a Herculean task," the person said, describing it as an "engineering lift." The person added that their legal teams were thrashing out how to interpret the various rules and their associated risks.

There is a growing body of research linking heavy use of social media by children and teens to poor mental health, prompting demands to better protect children from toxic content.

Republican Utah state representative Jordan Teuscher, who was the House sponsor of the state's bill, said that it was created in response to a number of studies showing "some really devastating effects of social media on teens."

"We strongly believe that parents best know how to take care of their own children. It was parents coming to us saying 'I need help'," he said of the decision to introduce the legislation, which is set to come into force in March 2024.

The Utah law requires social media platforms to verify the age of all state residents and then get parental consent before allowing under-18s to open an account. In addition, platforms must grant parents access to those accounts, and they are banned from showing them ads or targeted content.

Governments and regulators around the world are racing to introduce legislation, with both the UK's Online Safety Bill and the EU's Digital Services Act compelling social media companies to shield children from harmful content.