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'Putting you on notice': Utah governor, lawmakers plan crackdown on social media companies

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to members of the media during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks to members of the media during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox had strong words for social media companies during his Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium on Tuesday.

Citing concerns about social media's impact on teen mental health, Cox and a panel of state lawmakers discussed ways the government can regulate social media to protect teens and students, by potentially prohibiting cellphones in classrooms and barring people below a certain age from creating accounts on certain platforms.

"There is a compounding effect that is impacting all of us and I am deeply worried about it," Cox said. "I know we have some social media companies in the room, we're glad you're here. We are putting you on notice. You have some options. You can fight, and that's fine. We're ready for the fight. Or you can join us and be part of the solution."

Regulating big tech

Cox's comments came after several hours of panel discussions, with experts and legislators, about the potential harms of social media and how parents can help keep their kids safe.

Social media companies, and the algorithms they use to push content to users, have come under increasingly intense scrutiny from politicians on both sides of the aisle, and Utah lawmakers said they want our state to help lead out on the issue.

"I think people across America know there's a problem," said Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, who participated in a legislative panel. "I know there's been some legislation coming out of Texas especially, Louisiana, California. I would like to see Utah lead out on this issue. ... We're a state with a lot of kids, with values that are important to us."

McKell is Cox's brother-in-law, and in 2021, Cox used the first veto of his administration to strike down a bill McKell sponsored that would have required social media companies to tell users what their moderation policies are. Opponents of the bill said it was potentially a violation of the First Amendment.

Gov. Spencer Cox listens to a panel discussion about public health concerns for Utah teens during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Gov. Spencer Cox listens to a panel discussion about public health concerns for Utah teens during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Cox compared today's social media companies to tobacco companies of old, which faced heavy governmental regulation once the dangers of smoking became well-known. Although the dangers of social media differ from the dangers of tobacco — and causality hasn't officially been established between social media use and mental health issues for teens — Cox referenced statistics that show nearly one in five Utah students in grades 6-12 have considered suicide.

Seeing that and other data that shows increased rates of depression and other mental health issues in students since 2010 was an "awakening" for Cox.

"We're hoping to have that same awakening with other policymakers," he said. "Government is not going to solve all of our problems ... but it can help us as parents, as individuals, as families to take collective action. If your kid came home at 13 with a cigarette right now ... you'd probably freak out, right? We're doing the same thing (with social media)."


I know we have some social media companies in the room, we're glad you're here. We are putting you on notice. You have some options. You can fight, and that's fine. We're ready for the fight. Or you can join us and be part of the solution.

–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox


With the beginning of the 2023 legislative session less than a week away, lawmakers seemed eager to make a statement and were confident that other legislators and constituents would be on board. While the details are still being worked out and no bills have been made public, McKell said he's optimistic lawmakers will make progress on requiring parental tools and age verification for social media apps.

"I've talked to a lot of parents and I don't know that I've talked to a parent yet that disagrees with these efforts," said Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Sandy.

Freshman Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Sandy, is working on another, yet undisclosed, bill that would ban cellphones from Utah's public school classrooms.

If these efforts aren't enough, lawmakers are weighing the benefits of preventing people under a certain age from signing up for social media. Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, compared it to age limits set for obtaining a legal driver's license.

"We talked about some of those harmful algorithms that we're seeing, there's some component of legislation that we need to have in there that puts some skin in the game for the social media companies and how they're driving these addictive features," said Teuscher. "If they continue to move in this direction, if they aren't protecting our kids, there's liability. We're looking at the best way to do that."

"We talked about the states as the laboratories of democracy, we'll figure it out," he continued. "We'll try some things this session, and some of them may work, some of them may or may not work. ... It's just this unfettered access doesn't make any sense."

Last week, Seattle's public school system filed a lawsuit against several social media platforms — including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube — arguing the sites have a negative impact on students' mental health.

While he said he's "not dying to sue all the social media companies," McKell said similar action through the courts may prove effective.

Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project, speaks to members of the media during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Brad Wilcox, University of Virginia sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project, speaks to members of the media during a Social Media and Youth Mental Health Symposium at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

How parents can help

Earlier in the day, Cox was joined by Brad Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Wilcox said he's seen a dramatic increase in the number of students who receive accommodations for people who are experiencing serious mental distress, but offered advice for parents who are concerned about the impact social media is having on their children.

For starters, he said many parents feel powerless about preventing their kids from using certain platforms, and he said he would like to give parents more power "specifically in terms of ... saying yes or no to different social media applications." Parents don't have to completely ban social media or allow kids to access any and all platforms, they can choose the platforms they feel most comfortable with.

In research conducted last year by Wilcox, he also recommended keeping phones out of children's bedrooms after bedtime, and limiting the time children spend on social media to no more than two to three hours a day.

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Utah LegislatureUtah K-12 educationPoliticsUtahSalt Lake CountyEducationScienceFamily
Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.

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