Protecting young people online is an important goal, and 2023 has seen a flurry of legislation aimed at increasing safety and privacy standards for minors online. Some legislation is thoughtful, like the recently-passed CAMRA Act that funds research into the impacts of tech on childhood development, both “positive and negative.” Other bills would have negative consequences for privacy and for the ability of minors to access important resources, like Age Appropriate Design Code (AADC) legislation, which would effectively force online platforms to ID users and age-gate content.
Then there’s Utah’s parental control legislation, which goes the extra detrimental mile by not only endangering user privacy, but posing a harmful threat to young people.
This year, the Utah legislature introduced, passed, and signed into law new legislation that would prevent anyone under the age of 18 from accessing a social media account without parental consent. Additionally, Utah’s bill requires that parents have full access to read all messages and posts on their child’s social media account.
While AADC and other digital children’s bills pose privacy risks by requiring online platforms to treat minors differently, effectively forcing age verification for all users, Utah’s bill is explicit. S.B. 152 requires online platforms to verify the age of all users, collecting sensitive personal information.
Utah’s legislation also threatens additional harms. Consider for a moment that not all teenagers live in a household with supportive parents. There are more 10,000 substantiated cases of child abuse reported in Utah each year. For those children and teens, online resources and connections can be an important source of information and support.
Last month, news broke about a pair of Utah teens who were court ordered to return to their abusive father. Barricading themselves in their room, the teens used TikTok to mobilize supporters in their defense.
Teens from marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+ teens, could suffer some of the worst harms. Research from the Trevor Project finds that fewer than 1 in 3 transgender and nonbinary youth find their home to be gender-affirming. For support, studies show that queer young adults turn to the Internet to explore their sexual identity, connect with peers, and find their community online. For many LGBTQ+ people, the Internet is a critical part of their journey.
For its negative impact on digital privacy and for its isolating impact on young adults and teens, Utah’s parental control bill has truly earned this year’s Worst for Children Tech 404 Award.
We would be remiss not to mention Sen. Josh Hawley’s extraordinarily ill-conceived ban on teen use of social media, and similar statewide legislation proposed in Texas and Iowa. These bills would impact all young adults, not just those with unsupportive parents, by eliminating teen access to online resources that help them learn about their world, strengthen their social connections, and forge deeper ties to their communities. While complete bans like those proposed by Sen. Hawley and Texas legislators threaten even more harm than Utah’s parental control legislation, they are relegated to runner up status because they are unlikely to pass or receive serious consideration. Bill sponsors are amending Iowa’s proposed ban which now more closely resembles parental control legislation similar to Utah’s S.B. 152.