Navigating the Patchwork, States Address Online Safety For Children

By FOCUS, A Leonine Business

In today’s digital age, where social media plays an integral role in the lives of young people, states across the U.S. have begun taking significant steps to safeguard the well-being of minors online. In 2023, 35 states considered legislation pertaining to social media, with 12 states enacting bills or adopting resolutions aimed at enhancing online safety measures.

Utah enacted HB 311, a first-of-its-kind law that requires social media companies to verify the age of and obtain the consent of a parent or guardian before a state resident under a specified age may open an account. ArkansasLouisianaOhio and Texas all followed suit and passed similar laws requiring parental consent for social media services.

So far this year, 30 states have already introduced legislation aimed at bolstering online safety. These measures would, among other things, create study commissions, establish age-appropriate design codes, require age verification or parental consent to open social media accounts and integrate digital literacy courses into K-12 curricula.

South Carolina is considering HB 4700, which would require minors to have parental consent to use platforms and be prohibited from direct messaging adults who are not connected. Platforms would be required to block minor account holders’ usage during the hours of 10:30 PM to 6:30 AM, unless the parent changed or bypassed these restrictions through their access to the minor’s account as mandated in the bill.

In Florida, legislators have introduced HB 1, which would require social media platforms to prevent minors under 16 from creating new accounts by using age verification methods. Platforms would be required to terminate minor accounts upon requests from both the minor and parent and to disclose content moderation policies, addictive design features and data collection practices, specifically when targeting users under 18 years of age.

Not all children’s online safety bills seem to be uncontroversial. In some instances, such as in Arkansas and California, courts have temporarily halted the enforcement of “age-appropriate design code” laws, citing the First Amendment. The tech industry has also expressed concerns, advocating for a federal law to establish uniform standards for children’s online safety. They argue that the patchwork of state laws creates confusion and inconsistency and cite concerns with implementation.

As the debate over online safety intensifies, states are taking proactive measures to address the challenges posed by social media in the absence of comprehensive federal oversight. With industry sharing concerns, legislatures will need to find the balance between the need to protect minors with the principles of free speech. FOCUS will continue to monitor the legislative developments of online safety in the coming year.