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Can Utah Limit Children’s Social Media Use?
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Can Utah Limit Children’s Social Media Use?

Other states take inspiration from Utah’s new laws restricting minors’ access to social media.

Happy Thursday! At a castle on the second day of his four-day swing through Ireland, President Joe Biden told reporters that visiting Ireland felt like “coming home” and wondered aloud “why the hell my ancestors left here.” Irish media have covered seemingly every detail of the president’s visit, including the exact routes of his travel in Belfast and the names of members of his security detail, after a sensitive planning document laying out the trip was found on the street. No malarkey!!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the person who leaked classified Defense Department documents in recent weeks worked on a military base and went by the name “OG” in a closed Discord chat where the leaker posted transcriptions of documents lifted from the base, according to a member of the chat who saw the documents. Eventually, OG  posted photos of original documents to the Discord group of roughly two dozen people who bonded over a love of guns and military gear.
  • A report from the pro-abortion access Society of Family Planning released Wednesday found that legal abortions in the United States fell 6 percent in the six months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer. All told, according to the report, there were about 32,200 fewer legal abortions in the post-Roe period than the six months leading up to the decision, dropping the national abortion rate from 13.2 per 1,000 women of reproductive age to 12.3.
  • The Consumer Price Index rose 0.1 percent month-over-month and 5 percent annually in March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday, down from 0.4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, in February. The year-over-year measure is at its lowest level in nearly two years, but it remains well above the Federal Reserve’s target, leaving open the possibility central bankers decide to hike interest rates another 25 basis points at their meeting next month despite minutes from their last meeting revealing they anticipate a recession later this year.
  • Thousands of residents in Richmond, Indiana, are under an evacuation order after a fire broke out at a plastics facility on Wednesday, generating a plume of toxic black smoke. Local officials said the fire has spread to at least six buildings in the area and will likely take days to put out. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting tests on debris samples, and warning “asbestos-containing materials may be present due to the age of the building.”
  • E-cigarette brand Juul Labs reached a $462 million settlement with six states—including California, New York, and Massachusetts—on Wednesday after the states claimed the company aggressively marketed its vapes to minors. The company has spent nearly $3 billion defending itself against thousands of lawsuits from states, local governments, and individuals alleging it is responsible for a vaping crisis particularly affecting young people.
  • Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis sanctioned Fox News on Wednesday for withholding evidence in the defamation case brought by Dominion Voting Machines, and said he planned to appoint a special master to determine whether Fox turned over everything it was supposed to during the discovery process. Abby Grossberg—a former Fox News producer who is now suing the network—said Tuesday Fox had access to video recordings she made of Rudy Giuliani and other Trump allies saying in 2020 they had no evidence the election was stolen.
  • Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced yesterday Fox News will host the GOP’s first presidential primary debate in Milwaukee this August. The criteria for qualifying for the debate—which will be hosted in partnership with Young America’s Foundation and Rumble—should be released “soon,” McDaniel said, but she added all candidates on the stage will be asked to pledge their support to the eventual nominee.
  • Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin announced Wednesday she plans to run for reelection next year, seeking what would be her third term and boosting Democrats’ chances of holding the chamber. Wisconsin is expected to be a 2024 battleground state, but Baldwin has yet to receive a Republican challenger for the seat.
  • Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, 89, asked Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer last night to temporarily replace her on the Senate Judiciary Committee—a move that would require approval from the Senate—after it became clear she would not be returning to D.C. at the end of the Easter recess. Feinstein is facing calls to resign from Democrats—including fellow Californian, Rep. Ro Khanna—and has been in San Francisco since she was diagnosed with shingles in February, delaying important judicial nominations. Feinstein has said she will not run for reelection in 2024, but, for now, plans to serve out the remainder of her term.
  • Members of the Republican-controlled Arizona House of Representatives voted to expel GOP State Rep. Liz Harris from the state House on Wednesday after she invited a speaker to provide testimony baselessly claiming the 2020 election was stolen in a scheme involving Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, Republican House Speaker Ben Toma, and bribes from drug cartels. All 28 of the legislature’s Democrats were joined by 18 of its 31 Republicans in voting to make Harris—first elected in November—only the fifth person to be expelled from the state’s legislature.

Must Be This Tall to Post

A group of high school students looking at their smartphones while taking a short break during class. (Via Getty Images)
A group of high school students looking at their smartphones while taking a short break during class. (Via Getty Images)

You’d be forgiven for assuming the state at the bleeding edge of social media and tech policy to be California, or New York, or even Washington. But that would be an example of coastal bias, because the state taking the boldest steps is none other than Utah.

Late last month, Utah became the first state to pass laws requiring age verification, parental consent, and time limits for children using social media—an attempt to salvage young people’s cratering mental health. Utah still needs to sort out exactly how to enforce these new rules before they take effect next year, but other states are hot on its heels: Arkansas passed a social media bill just yesterday. But attorneys warn the rules will face legal challenges and may run afoul of minors’ First Amendment rights.

The two laws restrict social media use for children under 18. They require age verification for user accounts, permission from parents before kids can open accounts, parental access to minors’ accounts—including posts and private messages—and a social media curfew lasting from 10:30 pm and 6:30 am (parents can adjust this schedule). The new laws will also ban social media companies from collecting data on minors, displaying ads on their accounts, and “using a design or feature that causes a minor to have an addiction to the company’s social media platform.” 

“This is all intended around empowering parents and giving them more tools to be able to protect their own kids,” Rep. Jordan Teuscher, a Republican state legislator and sponsor of the bill, told The Dispatch. “We have constituents of our own that are asking us for help because they can’t do it on their own. They feel like the social media companies and their algorithms are just too powerful, and though they try to set up guardrails for their own kids, they can’t do it in an effective way.”

Recent polling suggests Utah parents would likely use some of those tools—60 percent of Utah adults support limiting social media use to people 16 and older, according to a March Deseret News and Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

But if the proposed restrictions sound vague, that’s because they are—at least for now. 

The Utah Department of Commerce is responsible for developing rules and enforcement for most of the measures—after collecting social media companies’ ideas for doing so—and lawmakers delayed the laws’ implementation until March 2024 so they’d have time to make any changes that prove necessary. Once the rules are settled, the commerce department will levy fines against social media companies for compliance failures. “The way that enforcement really happens is driven by complaints,” Margaret Busse, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, told The Dispatch. Individuals will submit complaints to the department, and companies could face up to a $2,500 fine per violation, which could quickly stack up should social media platforms fail to systematically comply with the laws. 

Concerns about children’s use of social media have been growing for years, but recent reports on potential harms—particularly among girls—have lit a fire under lawmakers to take action. A February Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report found 57 percent of teen girls and 29 percent of boys–up from 36 percent and 21 percent, respectively in 2011–experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year.”

After examining more than 100 studies on social media use and mental health, New York University psychologist* Jonathan Haidt and two other researchers concluded the data suggests dismal effects for young people using these platforms. “Taken as a whole, it shows strong and clear evidence of causation, not just correlation,” he argued in February following the release of the CDC report. “There is one giant, obvious, international, and gendered cause: Social media.” 

Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox cited Haidt at a January symposium on youth mental health, and the state’s new laws are directly inspired by work from researchers including Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, and Jean Twenge, a San Diego State University psychologist*. The two helped write a policy brief last summer advocating for nearly all the provisions in the new laws. Wilcox himself participated in Cox’s January conference and attended the bills’ signing in Utah last month. “Utah’s new legislation takes power from Big Tech [and] puts it in the hands of parents,” Wilcox wrote.

Not everyone is on board with the new measures, though—including researchers who argue restricting children’s social media use could in some cases deepen social isolation and damage mental health. “If you’ve got a 17-year-old who is really struggling with mental health turning to social media to find a place to belong, and their parents are cutting it off or looking at their messages, that can have a really significant negative impact,” Sarah Coyne, a child development professor at Brigham Young University, told the New York Times.

Legislators have pushed back on those criticisms, arguing that under the new laws children still have access to social networks—just with added parental supervision. “Though we have set up some defaults based on the best available research that exists out there, as a tool, any parent can approve their kid to have an account that allows them to do whatever they want,” Teuscher told The Dispatch

But beyond the policy questions surrounding the new laws, there are serious questions about their legality. “These bills are all written with very little idea of how they’re going to work in practice,” Ari Cohn, the free speech counsel for TechFreedom, a think tank representing the tech industry’s perspective in Washington, told The Dispatch. “I will eat my shorts if there aren’t challenges filed to it.” 

Cohn compared the Utah laws to past legislation banning children from purchasing violent video games—measures ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court. “Justice [Antonin] Scalia came right out and said that a law conditioning a minor’s First Amendment rights on prior parental consent would be obviously unconstitutional,” he said of a case out of California. “And that’s pretty much exactly what Utah is trying to do here: A minor cannot use social media without the prior consent of the parent.”

Still, some states are already following Utah’s lead. Yesterday, Arkansas Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law a measure requiring parental consent for minors to create new social media accounts. Texas lawmakers have also introduced measures to expand parental controls over minors’ accounts, and one proposal even included a blanket ban on teenagers using social media.

Utah lawmakers hope that trend continues despite the risk of legal action. “I do expect that we’ll see some litigation, whether it’s sometime in the next year or after the bill goes into effect,” Teuscher said. And despite some pushback, he’s undeterred. “I’ve had a dozen other legislators across the nation reach out to me, wanting to understand how we did it, wanting to do something similar in their state.”

Worth Your Time 

  • Just as some voters swung from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, will a new crop move from Hillary Clinton to Ron DeSantis? In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues the Florida governor is well-positioned to appeal to a critical subset of these swingy voters. “In some ways, the [Clinton]-DeSantis voter is the opposite of the Obama-Trump voter,” Dougherty writes. “Instead of a downwardly mobile rural white man, the Hillary-DeSantis voter is likelier to be an upwardly mobile suburban white woman, married and with children. The Obama-Trump voter was an anti-status quo voter. That doesn’t mean that the Hillary-DeSantis voter is pro-status quo, or establishmentarian. The Hillary-DeSantis voter is for restoring ‘normalcy.’ They are conservatives only because they feel that the Left has run away from them and stranded them nearer to the Right. … If Ron DeSantis has a chance of overcoming Donald Trump in the Republican primaries and making his case for president, he will have to point to and vigorously represent the Hillary-DeSantis voter.”
  • In the New York Times, David Sheff makes a case for involuntary treatment for drug addiction—in high quality programs—by drawing on his experience trying and failing to convince his now-sober son to attend treatment voluntarily. “He used dangerous drugs for 10 years before he went into a program that finally helped him,” Sheff writes. “He didn’t want to go, but he broke into his mother’s house and was about to be arrested. A sympathetic police officer gave him a choice between rehab or jail. He chose rehab. If he hadn’t been impelled, he says (and I believe), he probably wouldn’t be alive today. There was a time I didn’t think he would make it to 21. He turned 40 this year, after being sober for 11 years. But not all involuntary treatment needs to be, or should be, mandated by the criminal justice system.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the newsletters: The Dispatch Politics team reports on how abortion might play in 2024, Scott dives into (🔒) the shaky rollout of Biden’s new industrial policy, Nick argues (🔒) Gov. Greg Abbott’s pardon push in Texas is as bad as it looks, and Jonah revisits (🔒) his Skokie Nazi debate with Sarah. “A confident and morally serious society can distinguish between Nazis and civil rights protesters, between a Klansman and a federal judge invited to speak to a bunch of law school students,” he writes. “I can’t prove it, but I think the Skokie decision helped sap that moral and philosophical seriousness from our politics and culture.” 
  • On the podcasts: Jonah talks to AEI’s Fred Kagan about Ukraine and Taiwan, and David and Sarah discuss Alvin Bragg’s latest PR stunt before being joined by former Alabama Solicitor General Andrew Brasher.
  • On the site: Charlotte covers Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s biggest political challenge to date and Harvest looks at the plight of American prisoners in China. 

Let Us Know

Do you think there’s a good case for limiting minors’ access to social media? Should that decision be made by state legislatures or by parents?

Correction, 4/13/23: Haidt and Twenge are psychologists

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.