Utah governor braces for legal battle with social media companies, saying children suffer from algorithmic addiction

Gov. Spencer Cox holds his monthly PBS Utah press conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center on March 16, 2023 in Salt Lake City. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

For Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who previously said he “can’t wait” to address an expected lawsuit over the state’s recently passed legislation cracking down on social media companies, the reach of popular platforms like TikTok is up Children nothing short of an addiction.

“What I keep hearing is desperate children and desperate parents who have tried everything. They really have,” Cox told reporters during his monthly PBS Utah news conference on Thursday.

The governor said he “hates” comments “mostly from non-parents” who say, “Well, if only you were a better parent, your kid wouldn’t do that.”

“People who say that don’t understand addiction,” Cox said. “A lot of the people who yell at me that, ‘If you were a better parent, your kid wouldn’t be spending so much time on social media,’ would never blame an addict, an alcoholic, or a drug addict, for their addictions .”

Cox said he knows parents “who have put their children through addiction treatment to get rid of whatever social media addiction they have. They tried everything.”

Social Media Restrictions in Utah

Cox’s comments come after he recently signed two bills into law making Utah the first state in the US to ban anyone under the age of 18 from using social media without the express permission of a parent or guardian.


The bills aim to give parents more control over children’s online use, from setting digital lockdowns to determining whether a child can access social media at all.

SB152 directs social media companies to obtain consent from a parent or guardian before anyone under the age of 18 opens an account and effectively requires all Utahns to verify their age in order to use social media.

If a parent approves a social media account, the business must restrict overnight use by minors unless there is parental consent, protect minors from advertising — including targeted ads, content, or accounts — and prevent minors from notify specific accounts. Parents or guardians can monitor their children’s use and interactions with social media.

The story goes on

HB311, sponsored by Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, bans social media companies from using tools that make social media addictive to teens.

Under both bills, the Commerce Department can investigate and fine social media companies that don’t comply. The bills will come into force on March 1, 2024.

While the legislation didn’t define how companies verify a user’s age, proponents of the new rules say Louisiana could be a model; Age verification is required for online pornography sites.

Will children dodge the law?

Cox acknowledged that “kids are smart, kids can find a way around the law,” but “we have to start somewhere. We really have to try. This is what we are trying to do to break this terrible addiction that is causing immense harm to our children.”

The governor’s impassioned comments in response to a question from a Judge Memorial Catholic High School student who attended Thursday’s news conference. She asked the governor if he considered SB152 “could adversely affect minors” if it “impairs their ability to use social media as a learning and informational tool and requires minors to collect even more personally identifiable information from social media.” company to demand”.


“First,” Cox said, “let me assure you that social media companies have all of your information, and that’s part of the problem. … I think it’s crazy that we just think it’s suddenly okay to let 14-year-olds be at the mercy of these corporate giants when it comes to mining your data.”

Cox said social media companies already have access to a wealth of personal information and “they have a profile of every single one of us.”

“They know where we live, they know where we shop, they know what we think, eat, drink, sleep. And all of a sudden people are panicking, ‘Oh no, they might know I’m underage, I don’t see that as a problem at all.’”

In terms of learning, Cox said, “There are other ways to learn than social media. … I think we all did well before we had access to social media.”

The governor noted that his 16-year-old daughter is the only one of her friends who isn’t on social media, “and she’s doing well in school. So I think we can pull through.”

“Again, this is not about keeping social media completely away from children. That’s not the idea at all. The idea is to make sure that when they use social media, they act responsibly and, more importantly, that we don’t destroy their lives again with this experiment that social media companies are trying to do on our children.”


“Trying to give power back to parents”

Cox pointed to a precipitous rise in depression, anxiety and suicide among teens, particularly teenage girls, and said the goal of Utah legislation is to get social media companies to “turn off those addictive algorithms.” , especially for minors, and “to help prevent the predatory things that happen on social media so that random strangers and adults don’t show up in (in) the timeline (in) the timeline and give you without your permission or permission.” unable to message or connect directly with your parents.

Cox said parents can make this choice to give their child permission to have full access, “they can do that. But this is a family conversation.”

“We’re not trying to usurp parental power at all,” Cox said. “We’re not interested in that. What we’re actually trying to do is give power back to parents.”

“I don’t think I’m a better parent to your child than you are. I really don’t. II don’t want to tell you how to raise your kid,” Cox said. “But I want to give you the opportunity to raise your child. And that’s not happening right now. … We gave that to the social media companies. We let social media companies decide how we raise our kids. And that is a big mistake.”

What will Utah’s lawsuit include?

With Utah officials expecting a legal challenge to the legislation, when asked what the state’s legal defense will include, Cox gave no specifics, but did suggest it could reflect opioid or tobacco lawsuits.

“The opioid lawsuit is very telling because they were able to show that companies were harming people and they knew they were harming people,” said Cox. “I think the tobacco trial is another one that we’re going to be looking at very closely. So all I can say is that we are preparing for whatever comes out of it.”


Cox said he expects the US Supreme Court to likely review the case, and he believes previous jurisprudence in the 1990s on free speech online considered the “extreme harm” caused to children by social media.

“I don’t think the Supreme Court ever anticipated this, and I suspect that if a Supreme Court has the opportunity and becomes likely to review these cases in light of what we now know about social media, it will.” do so note that these cases do not apply to the social media platforms.”

When asked whether today’s more conservative composition of the US Supreme Court could help or hurt the Utah case, Cox said, “That’s a good question,” but noted that the problem affects liberals and conservatives alike.

“I don’t know. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t know if it hurts or helps,” Cox said. “I think it just fits into both the conservative and liberal camps out of some kind of political philosophy. It’s one of those weird areas these days where there’s common ground.”