Utah recently passed two laws that would drastically change how teens in the state are able to use social media. The new laws will impose strict rules for how companies handle teenagers’ accounts, including provisions requiring parental consent, and mandates for in-app parental controls and curfew features.
But among the most controversial aspects of the law is age verification. It requires companies like Snap, Meta and TikTok to confirm the ages of their youngest users in order to enforce the other age-based restrictions. Under the rules, which are set to take effect next March, large platforms will no longer be able to simply allow teens to enter their own birthday at sign-up. Instead, they would need to go through some other process, like providing a copy of an I.D, before they could access their accounts.
While Utah is the first state to enact such a law, it’s unlikely to be the last. Arkansas, Ohio, Connecticut and Minnesota are all considering social media laws with either explicit age verification requirements or other age-based restrictions. At the federal level, Senator Josh Hawley has proposed a bill that would prohibit teenagers under 16 from using social media entirely, and require social media companies to independently verify the ages of their users. Even the US Surgeon General has suggested that 13 may be “too young” for teens to use social media.
The proposed laws are part of broader reckoning around how social media is impacting its youngest users. For years, lawmakers, armed with teenage finstas and incriminating research, have made youth safety a central part of their effort to regulate Big Tech. Along the way, they’ve also proposed laws that would rein in algorithms, make it more difficult to post and limit apps’ more “addictive” features.
But the latest crop of laws have instead zeroed in on parental consent and age-based restrictions, rather than addressing structural issues like data privacy. Irene Ly, policy counsel for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advocates for child safety online, says the shift is happening in part because lawmakers have been unable to pass comprehensive privacy bills.
“Privacy legislation seems to have a lot more sticking points,” she tells Engadget. “It's hard to find a compromise on all the facets of regulating tech.” But lawmakers have been able to find more broad support — at least at the state level — for age-based restrictions and parental consent requirements, particularly in states that have passed other laws emphasizing “giving rights to the parents.”
But experts warn that focusing on age-based restrictions won’t address the core safety issues lawmakers say they want to solve. And age verification measures, like those in Utah, pose a significant threat to the privacy of all social media users, not just teens.
Privacy advocates, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), say that there’s no way to enforce age verification requirements without requiring that all users submit to the checks. “It's not just the privacy of young people that's at stake, it's everyone,” Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy for the EFF, tells Engadget, noting that a previous attempt to require age verification was struck down by the Supreme Court more than a decade ago. ”Confirming that everyone is the age they say they are is not possible without confirming every single person's age.”
For example, Utah’s law states “the social media company shall deny access to the account” for any “Utah account holder fails to meet the verification requirements.” That means even adult social media users could face being locked out of their accounts if they fail to provide a copy of an ID or submit to another kind of age check.
Figuring out how to apply these laws only in specific states would also be problematic, according to industry groups. “Although the proposed legislation purports to apply only to Utah residents, platforms cannot know which users are Utah residents without first verifying their identity,” Ari Cohn, free speech counsel for TechFreedom, a think tank that’s received funding from Meta and Google, said in a statement. “This legislation would be a nationwide mandate that Utah is not permitted to impose.”
Even figuring out how to verify users’ ages could prove tricky. Many minors don’t have a driver’s license or government-issued ID. Instagram has tested an AI face-scanning tool that claims to be able to accurately estimate users’ ages based on their facial features (experts have raised doubts about the accuracy and ethical implications of using these tools at scale). But Kelley, of the EFF, says that any form of age verification exposes users to additional data privacy risks.
“It's so easy to find examples of these companies taking advantage of data that they explained was going to be collected for one purpose and using it for another,” Kelley says. For example, it wasn't that long ago that Meta and Twitter both admitted to using phone numbers originally collected for two-factor authentication for targeted advertising. Kelley says there could be an even greater risk of something similar happening with any age verification system. “We have no way of knowing whether they're doing that with identity verification information. Whether that's a selfie, a shared driver's license, a call through an API to a credit company — we just don't know.”
Common Sense Media has raised similar concerns. Ly says that laws addressing more fundamental aspects of social media platforms would be more effective than attempting to lock out teens of a certain age.
“If you can implement some key changes to these companies, like limiting how much data they're collecting and what they're using it for, and then making changes to how their platform is designed, that will create a healthier experience,” she said. “It wouldn't necessitate prohibiting teens from being on the platform altogether.”