This op-ed was originally published in Washington Examiner on February 18, 2023.
Utah is moving to pass social media age restrictions into law. This follows Texas’s effort to restrict or outright ban minors’ access to social media through regulation. In a similar vein, President Joe Biden is renewing calls to restrict advertising to minors.
The trouble is, to keep minors off social media or to keep them from being targeted by advertisers, a company has to know who is a minor and who is an adult. And how exactly are they supposed to do that?
It’s a problem that has plagued the internet for decades. A website could ask a user upfront for their birthdate, as some sites do now. But those are easy to get around with a little white lie and a mouse click. And the unfortunate truth is that this is the best internet companies can do. At least, it’s the best a company can do without forcing users to hand over their papers, subjecting them to experimental biometric facial scanning technology, or collecting sensitive information.
Legislators in Utah are currently considering two bills, HB 311 and SB 152, that, in their original drafts, would have forced social media companies to collect government IDs and hold on to them for safekeeping. After the opposition cited clear privacy concerns with that approach, these measures have been stricken from the language.
Legislators, however, remain undeterred. The problem Utah lawmakers are set on solving is the rise in teenage depression and self-harm, which they blame on social media. The research supporting this conclusion comes from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — whose piece in the Atlantic used the fabled Tower of Babel as a metaphor for social media. Haidt argued social media, like Babel, has left many adolescents dependent on superficial communication, which makes them worse off as the torchbearers of our future.
Haidt’s argument is certainly compelling, but when it comes to workshopping practical solutions to the problems he’s outlined, it all comes down to that one nagging question: How are companies supposed to know which online users are minors?
Legislators can sidestep the problem for now, but social media companies won’t have a choice. After striking the age-verification sections in both bills, what’s left behind are hefty penalties to be placed on companies hosting minors, whether they know they’re minors or not. Wielding the threat of liability along with an onerous set of penalties for noncompliance, the bills would leave companies with no choice but to verify user ages.
Such legislation is enough to shake the foundations of any social media company. If legislators are trying to bring Babel crashing down, then these bills are a great start. But is all this really necessary? Is restricting the next generation really the best way to train them to be torchbearers for the future? As 13-year-old Lucy Loewen eloquently asked a Utah Senate committee, “Will this really be creating responsible teenagers and adults if the government is just taking over and not letting us choose for ourselves?”
Instead of limiting access to social media, we need to focus on education and empowerment, providing minors and their parents with the skills and judgment they need to navigate the online world and interact with their peers in and outside of Utah.