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Teen sued Utah over social media law requiring curfew for minors

Enlarge / Utah high school student Hannah Zoulek sued Utah to block the Social Media Regulation Act from taking effect March 1.

A Utah high school student, Hannah Zoulek, has joined a lawsuit, fighting to block Utah’s vague social media law from taking effect on March 1.

The Social Media Regulation Act requires platforms to verify user ages and then obtain parental consent for minors under 18 to maintain accounts. Once granted access to platforms, minors must be blocked from search results, and no ads can be displayed on their account. Platforms granting access will accept liability for designing any features that the state considers to be addicting or harmful to minors. The law also imposes a curfew blocking minors from accessing platforms between 10:30 pm and 6:30 am.

Because the law “fails to define what constitutes ‘physical, mental, emotional, developmental, or material harms,’ or what degree of harm gives rise to liability,” platforms are left to “guess as to what behavior crosses the line,” the complaint said. A platform may be ruled to be causing harm if a teenager gets a headache after scrolling for too long or becomes upset after friends don’t like a selfie, the complaint said, “nobody knows.”

All of this, the lawsuit alleged, “creates a vague and virtually unlimited form of ‘addiction’ liability (where harm is presumed) that will vastly curtail the available online spaces for teens.” Many platforms might restrict minor access entirely to avoid “crushing civil penalties.” That includes a fine of $250,000 for each feature found to cause addiction, as well as up to $2,500 per minor found to be harmed.

“The vagueness means state officials (and even private plaintiffs) possess unlimited subjective discretion to decide whether a provider’s content publication practices cross the line,” the lawsuit said.

Social media law is “well-intentioned” but “misguided”

Zoulek is a queer-identifying high school student who uses social media to communicate with other members of their school’s robotics club, as well as with friends and “other communities to which they would not otherwise have access,” the complaint said. They sometimes use a cane and have consulted social media forums like Reddit in the past to answer questions about disability access when traveling to unknown places.

In a joint statement with attorneys at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Zoulek said that they’re concerned that the state is “making it harder to talk with people who have similar experiences” and that the law “just makes it even more difficult” for teens to access beneficial resources online.

Before the Social Media Regulation Act was passed, Zoulek testified before the Utah House Judiciary Committee, “citing their concerns about the law’s infringement on teens’ speech and ability to discuss important issues such as mental health.” Despite testimony from opposing stakeholders, lawmakers pushed the law through, after Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes—charged with enforcement and a defendant in the lawsuit—said that “positive aspects of social media” do not outweigh “substantial evidence” of “extremely harmful” effects of usage.

Reyes’ office declined Ars’ request to comment.

Zoulek’s lawsuit pointed out that the US surgeon general, in a 2023 advisory, said that “due to major gaps in research,” “it is impossible to generalize the effects” of minors’ social media use as either extremely positive or negative.

“Different children and adolescents are affected by social media in different ways, based on their individual strengths and vulnerabilities, and based on cultural, historical, and socio-economic factors,” the advisory concluded.

This law is “well-intentioned” but “misguided,” the complaint said. By striving to protect some minors under certain circumstances from becoming addicted to or harmed by social media, Utah risks unconstitutionally suppressing youth speech while gathering sensitive data on minors and potentially blocking access to resources and experiences shown to be beneficial to mental health.

“Some research suggests that the isolation that results from disconnecting teens from social media may be more harmful to their self-esteem and well-being than is heavy use of social media,” the complaint said.

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