Utah Teen Sues State Over Social Media Law

Utah Teen Sues State Over Social Media Law

Utah high school student Hannah Zoulek has mounted a challenge against the state of Utah, targeting the controversial Social Media Regulation Act set to be enacted on March 1. This act requires social media platforms to verify the ages of users and secure parental consent for users under 18. It also imposes a digital curfew, barring minors from accessing these platforms from 10:30 pm to 6:30 am.

The law has drawn criticism for its ambiguous definitions, especially in terms of what constitutes "harm" and "addiction." This vagueness leaves social media companies in a predicament, unsure of what actions or features might lead to significant fines, potentially reaching $250,000 per violation. The fear is that, to avoid these heavy penalties, platforms might restrict or even prohibit access to their services for younger users.

Hannah Zoulek, who identifies as queer and has a physical disability, depends on social media for communication and community building, particularly with peers in her school's robotics club and other supportive groups, as well as for essential information like disability access in new locations. Alongside attorneys from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), Zoulek argues that the law not only infringes on teenagers' access to valuable online resources but also violates their right to free speech.

The lawsuit sheds light on the incongruities within the law, such as the paradox of teenagers being deemed mature enough for various adult responsibilities, yet requiring parental permission for social media usage. It also challenges the proposed age-verification methods, which include facial recognition technology or the need for a government ID, as unreliable and potentially in conflict with other states' privacy regulations. For many young people, particularly those in challenging or abusive home environments, obtaining parental consent is not just impractical but could also be dangerous. The requirement for personal data collection for age verification raises significant privacy concerns and could lead to an unintended increase in sensitive data held by tech companies.

Plaintiffs including Zoulek, Lu Ann Cooper, and Jessica Christensen contend that the law violates several constitutional rights, including the First Amendment and the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. Furthermore, they assert that the law is preempted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which traditionally shields platforms from liability for third-party content. The plaintiffs have petitioned the US district court in Utah to deem the law invalid and prevent its implementation.

Cooper, who is a mother and an advocate for at-risk youths, expressed deep concern over the law's potential to harm vulnerable children. She underscores the importance of parental authority in deciding how children use social media, rather than state-imposed restrictions.

The lawsuit also points to a broader societal context, highlighting how the law could inadvertently hinder the well-being of teenagers. By disconnecting them from social media, the law may exacerbate feelings of isolation and negatively impact their mental health and self-esteem. This concern is especially pertinent given that some research suggests the potential benefits of social media in fostering community and self-identity among teenagers.

The plaintiffs are advocating for a more nuanced approach to regulating minors' online activities, suggesting that such decisions should be left to families rather than imposed by the state. They argue that the law, in its current form, fails to recognize the diverse needs and circumstances of young internet users and potentially infringes on their developmental and expressive rights.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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