Tech trade group sues over ‘unconstitutional’ Utah teen social media curfew law

A trade group associated with Meta, TikTok, and X is fighting back against a Utah law forcing minors to obtain parental consent and abide by a strict curfew in order to access social media. Though lawmakers in Utah and a growing number of other states believe regulations like these are necessary to protect young users from online harms, a new lawsuit filed by NetChoice argues the laws go too far and violate First Amendment rights to free expression. 

Utah officially passed its Social Media Regulation Act back in March. The law, which is set to take effect March 1, 2024, is actually a combination of a pair of bills, SB152 and HB311. Combined, the bills prohibit minors from opening a new social media account without first receiving written parental consent. It also restricts minors from accessing social media between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m, unless the receive permission from their parent or guardian. Tech platforms would be required to verify the age of its users. Failure to do so could result in a $2,500 fine per violation. 

Utah lawmakers supporting the law say it’s necessary to reduce young users’ exposure to potentially harmful material online such as eating disorder and self-harm related content. Lawmakers say the curfew, one of the more controversial elements of the law, could help ensure minors aren’t having their sleep impacted by excessive social media use. A US Surgeon General advisory report released earlier this year warned of potentially sleep deprivation linked to excessive social media use. 

“While there are positive aspects of social media, gaming, and online activities, there is substantial evidence that social media and internet usage can also be extremely harmful to a young person’s mental and behavioral health and development,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said during a press conference earlier this year. 

NetChoice, in a suit filed Tuesday, claims the provisions violate Utahns’ First Amendment Rights and amounts to a “unconditional attempt to regulate both minors’ and adults’ access to—and ability to engage in—protected expression.” The suit also takes aim at the law’s age verification requirement, which NetChoice argues would violate the privacy of all Utah social media users and ultimately do more harm than good. 

“The state is telling you when you can access a website and what websites you can access,” NetChoice Vice President and General Counsel Carl Szabo told PopSci. “Our founders recognized the dangers in allowing the government to decide what websites we can visit and what apps we can download. Utah is disregarding that clear prohibition in enacting this law.” 

The law wouldn’t just affect minors either. Szabo said the law’s rules forcing platforms to verify the age of users under the age of 18 would, by definition, also result in the verifying the ages of users over the age of 18. Social media companies would be required to use telecom subscriber information, a social security number, government ID, or facial analyses to verify those identities if the law takes effect. 

Aside from its constitutional issues, Szabo and NetChoice argue the bill would harm young users in the state by putting them at a disadvantage to minors in other states who have access to more information. The digital curfew, which the suit refers to as a “blackout” could restrict students from accessing educational videos or news articles during a large chunk of the day. The suit claims the curfew could also interfere with young users trying to communicate across multiple time zones. 

“The first amendment applies to all Americans, not just Americans over the age of 18,” Szabo said. 

NetChoice is calling on courts to halt the law from taking effect while its lawsuit winds its way through the legal system. That could happen. The trade group already successfully petitioned a US District Court to halt a similar parental consent law from going into effect in Arkansas earlier this year. Utah’s Attorney general spokesperson told PopSci, “The State of Utah is reviewing the lawsuit but remains intently focused on the goal of this legislation: Protecting young people from negative and harmful effects of social media use.”

State-wide online parental consent laws and bills regulating minors’ use of social media picked up steam in 2023. Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Ohio have all proposed or passed legislation limiting minors’ access to social media and severely limiting the types of content platforms can serve them. Some state laws, like the one in Utah, would go a step further and  grant adults full access to a child’s account and ban targeted advertising to minors. 

Supporters of these state bills cite a growing body of academic research appearing to draw links between excessive social media use and worsening teen depression rates. But civil liberties organizations like the ACLU say these efforts, though often well intentioned, could wind up backfiring by stifling minors’ freedom of expression and limiting their access to online communities and resources. Szabo, of not NetChoice, said states should step away from online line parental consent laws broadly and instead invest in digital wellness or education campaigns.