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Senator has tough words for tech as committee approves new social media rules for kids

FILE- The Youtube, left, and Snapchat apps are seen on a mobile device in New York, on Aug. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
FILE- The Youtube, left, and Snapchat apps are seen on a mobile device in New York, on Aug. 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
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A Utah Senate committee has given the green light to a bill changing the rules for social media companies when it comes to children using their platforms.

Senate Bill 152, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, passed unanimously out of the Utah Senate Business and Labor Committee Tuesday afternoon after some heated exchanges between lawmakers and tech lobbyists.

McKell’s bill would require social media companies to verify the ages of any user under 18 and obtain their parents’ consent. It would also let parents monitor their kids’ accounts, prohibit social media companies from collecting data on children or advertising to them, and limit children from accessing social media accounts between 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.

It doesn’t say kids can’t be on social media,” McKell said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure parents play a vital role and approve the activity that’s happening online.

McKell said social media is hurting children – and the companies know it.

“Our kids are far more depressed than they’ve ever been,” said McKell. “Social media is having a serious, negative impact on our kids.”

KUTV reached out to multiple social media companies including YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok to ask about McKell’s bill, but nobody responded as of Tuesday evening. Gov. Spencer Cox recently announced the state planned to sue social media companies over failing to protect children, but he did not specify which companies or claims the state would pursue.

"Do you have children?"

During the Senate committee hearing, there were some sharp exchanges between one lawmaker and a tech industry representative who spoke against the bill.

Khara Boender, state policy director at the Computer and Communications Industry Association, testified remotely from Washington, D.C. that age verification would require businesses to collect data that consumers don’t want to give up. She also said limiting social media could hurt children in unsafe households from seeking communities of support.

Every family has a different approach to how they use technology and the internet,” Boender said, “and children and families have the ability to learn, explore interests, and maintain connections with family and friends.

Following her testimony, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, asked her a question.

“Do you have children?” he asked.

“I do not have children personally, no,” Boender replied.

McCay then asked what her member companies – which includes Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – were doing to protect children. Boender said she couldn’t speak on behalf of specific companies.

The senator then lit into her, recalling the multiple steps he had to go through to verify his identity to post political advertising on Meta platforms. He accused the companies Boender's organization represents of “hypocrisy” and selling “inaccuracies.”

You are selling a product that is addicting in nature, and you build algorithms with a primary purpose of institutionalizing that addiction,” McCay said. “I would ask that you work with your clients to clean up your house. You have a problem.

McCay finished by saying, “I ask that you have those things straightened out before you appear before this committee again.”

Safety for kids

David Whitaker, a father of five in South Jordan, told KUTV he and his wife don’t allow their children to use social media.

We’re working on teaching our children how to communicate in person,” Whitaker said. “I think right now, social media is just, there’s just not a lot of rules and boundaries for children.

Whitaker said he supports what McKell’s bill is trying to do.

“I think that social media companies aren’t taking the initiative in setting these boundaries, and that it’s appropriate that if they’re not going to take action, that our elected representatives do so,” he said.

But others disagree. During the Senate hearing, Caden Rosenbaum from the Libertas Institute said requiring social media companies to verify users' ages "presents an issue for child safety."

That kind of data in the hands of any company, really, is dangerous," Rosenbaum said, noting that a future data breach is a matter of if, not when.

Lucy Loewen, a 13-year-old, testified in front of the committee and urged them to oppose the bill.

I really don’t think it will help much more by the government interfering," Loewen said, noting the restrictions could cause teens to feel disconnected from family and friends and potentially have suicidal thoughts. "We want to stop government intervention, so why would we let the government control our lives?

Aimee Winder Newton, a senior advisor to Gov. Cox, said the governor's office fully supports Senate Bill 152, which now heads to the full Senate for a vote.

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