12 Days of Broadband: State Regulations and Children's Safety Online

12 year olds (and older) having to age-verify on social media may become more common going forward.

12 Days of Broadband: State Regulations and Children's Safety Online
Illustration by DALL-E

January 3, 2024 – A nationwide push to restrict teenagers’ online actions gained ground in 2023 as several states implemented stringent laws targeting social media use among youth.

In March, Utah ventured into uncharted territory when Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed two measures, H.B. 311 and S.B. 152, mandating parental consent for

all minors – 17 and under – before they can register for platforms like TikTok and Meta’s Instagram. For decades, the default standard of the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act has been no restrictions on social media use by kids 13 and over.

The pair of bills, which do not go into effect until March 2024, require individuals under 18 to gain parental consent to open a social media account, bar minors from accessing social media platforms between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., and grant parents full access to their child’s social media accounts.

In October, Utah announced a lawsuit against TikTok, alleging that the app deploys addictive features to hook young users. The lawsuit raises additional concerns regarding user data and privacy, citing that TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, is legally binded with the Chinese Communist Party. 

Arkansas, Montana may be following Utah

Soon after, Arkansas took a similar step as Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Act 689, named the Social Media Safety Act, in April 2023. The newly approved act, aiming to mandate age verification and parental consent for social media users under 18, was set to come into effect on September 1. 

However, on that very day, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks granted a preliminary injunction following a petition from the tech trade industry group, NetChoice Litigation Center. Their contention was that the new law infringed upon the First Amendment’s freedom of expression guarantee.

In May, Montana Gov. Greg Ganforte signed legislation banning TikTok on all devices statewide, threatening fines up to $10,000 per violation for app providers like Google and Apple. Before the law took effect on January 1, Federal Judge Donald Molloy stopped the TikTok ban in late November, stating that the law exceeds state authority and violates the constitutional rights of users. 

Shortly after, TikTok filed a lawsuit against Montana. Judge Molloy found merit to numerous arguments raised by TikTok, including that TikTok has a number of safeguards in place surrounding user data.

Is Age verification a First Amendment issue?

Consumer groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have raised issues with the fact that many of these bills extend beyond merely mandating age verification solely for minors; they now necessitate age verification through proof of legal documents for anyone seeking to utilize social media within the states.

The issue was much discussed at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online session in November 2023, where child safety advocate Donna Rice Hughes and Tony Allen, executive director of Age Check Certification Scheme, agreed that age verification systems were much more robust than from a generation ago, when the Supreme Court struck down one such scheme. They disagreed with civil liberties groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

On TikTok, 13 states joined in enacting bans over the use of the Chinese-owned platform being installed on government-issued devices. That brings to 34 the total number of states that have banned TikTok on government devices due to national security concerns. Additionally, more than 40 public universities have barred TikTok from their on-campus Wi-Fi and university-owned computers in response to these state-level bans.

See “The Twelve Days of Broadband” on Broadband Breakfast

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