Utah governor unveils campaign warning of social media dangers, promises litigation

Aug 3, 2023, 2:30 PM | Updated: Oct 23, 2023, 2:11 pm

Aimee Winder Newton, Director of the Office of Families, left, and Utah Governor Spencer Cox are pi...

Aimee Winder Newton, Director of the Office of Families, left, and Gov. Spencer Cox announce the launch of a public awareness campaign urging parents to learn about the harms social media has on youth at the state Capitol on Thursday (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is launching a public information campaign “unmasking” the threat social media use may pose to teenagers, and Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday promised more litigation against social media platforms in the future.

Recent academic research and a report from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy have tied social media use to declines in mental health for teens, and Cox said there is a “causal link” between the two.

“We care about our kids in Utah, and I know that’s true across the nation. This is a huge issue that continues to grow,” the governor said while unveiling the campaign at the state Capitol on Thursday. “This is not a conservative issue, it’s not a liberal issue. It’s an American issue. It’s a parent issue.”

Using $500,000 allocated by the Utah Legislature earlier this year and $750,000 from the Department of Commerce’s fund for education campaigns, the state will air a pair of 30-second television spots now through next spring. The ads feature teens wearing rubber masks to show the “brave faces” many put on to hide the adverse impacts of social media use.

A government website provides research on social media and advice for parents who are navigating social media use with their children.

“This campaign is going to help our parents understand what’s behind these masks that these kids are wearing,” said Aimee Winder Newton, senior adviser to the governor and director of the Office of Families.

“We need parents to understand that this is something that their kids are struggling with,” she continued. “But the biggest thing that we want, too, is to emphasize human connection. You see, at the end of the video, the parent taking the phone (and) putting their arm around the child. We want to emphasize human connection as a piece of that, that we all should do a better job putting our phones down and connecting with each other.”

Cox stressed that social media has noted benefits and the goal of the campaign is to educate and assist parents, not prevent social media use entirely. That’s the expressed purpose of a pair of first-in-the-nation social media regulations the governor signed into law this spring.

One law requires social media companies to get parental consent before allowing minors on their platforms, verify the ages of all users in the state and treat minor accounts differently from adult accounts by limiting their appearance in search results, enabling parental controls for their children’s accounts and preventing the collection of minors’ data or targeting advertising toward them.

Another law makes it easier for parents to sue companies over alleged harms their children suffer as a result of using social media, and prohibits algorithms or other features that a company knows to cause a minor to become addicted to social media.

“We’re not trying to completely remove social media from our kids’ lives. We’re trying to teach them healthy habits,” Cox said.

Lawmakers could have prevented youth from using social media entirely — and considered banning kids under the age of 16 from signing up — but instead opted for regulations that make it easier for parents without eliminating the benefits for some kids, the governor added.

A vast majority of youth aged 13-17 use at least one social media platform, and a survey of eighth and 10th graders found that the average time spent on social media is 3.5 hours a day. Teens are regularly exposed to hateful content on social media, and social media is also linked to problems with sleep and attention.

Cox said he often hears criticism that social media wouldn’t be as big of a problem if parents “just did a better job,” but said, “This is incredibly difficult, as a parent of a 16-year-old.”

“This is the challenge of our time,” he said. “Even parents who are doing everything right are seeing incredible damage.”

But regulations and information campaigns aren’t the only strategies the governor has to help kids. Cox has repeatedly promised to sue social media companies over the alleged harm their platforms have done to kids, likening them to the tobacco companies that misled consumers about lung cancer and other risks of smoking.

He said to expect more lawsuits against companies, after the state filed a motion last week to compel TikTok to comply with subpoenas issued earlier this year, but hasn’t said which platforms the state plans to target or when those suits will be ready.

“Yes, there will be,” he said, when asked about additional lawsuits. “Now, obviously, we’re in the early processes of information gathering, but I feel very confident and I can’t say more than that.”

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Utah governor unveils campaign warning of social media dangers, promises litigation