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Florida Passes Sweeping Bill to Keep Young People Off Social Media

TechFlorida Passes Sweeping Bill to Keep Young People Off Social Media

Florida’s Legislature has passed a sweeping social media bill that would make the state the first to effectively bar young people under 16 from holding accounts on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

The measure — which Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would “be wrestling with” over the weekend and has not yet signed — could potentially upend the lives of millions of young people in Florida.

It would also probably face constitutional challenges. Federal courts have blocked less-restrictive youth social media laws enacted last year by Arkansas and Ohio. Judges in those cases said the new statutes most likely impinged on social media companies’ free speech rights to distribute information as well as young people’s rights to have access to it.

The new rules in Florida, passed on Thursday, would require social networks to both prevent people under 16 from signing up for accounts and terminate accounts that a platform knew or believed belonged to underage users. It would apply to apps and sites with certain features, most likely including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube.

Last year, Utah, Arkansas, Texas and Ohio enacted laws that would require social media platforms to get permission from a parent before giving an account to a minor under 18 or under 16.

Florida’s effort would go much further, amounting to a comprehensive ban for young people on some of the most popular social media apps. It would also bar the platforms from showing harmful material to minors, including “patently offensive” sexual conduct.

On Friday, Mr. DeSantis said that he thought social media was “a net negative” for young people but that, with parental supervision, it could have beneficial effects.

“You’ve got to strike that proper balance when you are looking at these things between policy that is helping parents get to where they want to go versus policy that may be outright overruling parents,” he said.

Civil liberties groups and tech industry trade organizations have objected to new state social media restrictions, saying the measures could severely curtail young people’s access to important information and communities — and alter how they communicate with friends and family.

The Florida measure is the most extreme example so far of a growing national trend. Many parents, pediatricians and politicians are worried about the potential mental health and safety risks to young people of prolonged social media use. That has prompted state and federal lawmakers and regulators to increase their scrutiny of, and efforts to regulate, social media companies.

In a politically polarized climate, the crackdown on social media stands out for being bipartisan.

Attorneys general from more than 40 states recently sued Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, accusing the company of unfairly ensnaring children and teenagers as well as deceiving the public about safety. (Meta has said that it spent a decade working to make online experiences safe and age-appropriate for teenagers and that the states’ litigation “mischaracterizes our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”)

Separately, Democratic- and Republican-led states have recently passed a wave of laws that would require social media companies to mitigate risks to young people and give parents more control over their children’s online activities.

Apps like Snapchat and Instagram already have policies prohibiting users under the age of 13. That is because the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires certain online services to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information — like full names, contact information, locations or selfie photos — from children under 13.

But state regulators say millions of underage children have been able to sign up for social media accounts simply by providing false birth dates. Proponents of the Florida law say it would fix that problem by requiring social media companies to verify the ages of all users before giving them accounts. Under the measure, the companies would have to deny accounts to people who could not verify their age.

Conservative policy experts have hailed the Florida measure, saying it would relieve the peer pressure that many parents feel to give their children social media accounts — and ease parents’ fears of social isolation for children not on social media.

“Florida’s social media bill marks a landmark step in protecting children from the harms of social media,” said Clare Morell, a senior policy analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative group in Washington, who has worked with lawmakers in several states on parental rights bills. “It provides a needed collective solution by making social media for kids under 16 a nonoption.”

Civil liberties groups have warned that such social media restrictions could prevent teenagers from everyday activities, like watching news videos on apps like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. And, they say, it could block young people from seeking information and communities on issues like political organizing, reproductive health and gender identity.

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