Commentary: Could social media regulation stifle our future?

This is the season of controversial big-government actions by Republicans and Democrats. They too often want to direct people’s actions toward how politicians see fit. While these range from policies dealing with industrial support, climate change, and labor markets, one concern is regulating social media.

From the Supreme Court’s scrutiny of Texas and Florida’s social media laws to Utah and other states unveiling social media rules for the digital world, parental rights and capitalism are at a pivotal moment. The policy choices we are making now on these issues will impact the brightest spot in the American economy.

As economist Thomas Sowell correctly noted, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. This is a reason why it is crucial for Americans to grasp the trade-offs of social media regulation before politicians and bureaucrats take action.

Utah’s “Social Media Regulation Act” serves as a cautionary tale of government overreach with severe trade-offs. While the road to online safety is paved with good intentions, as we all want the best for minors (and everyone), we must evaluate policies by their real-world results.

Utah’s law mandates minors under 18 must obtain a guardian’s permission to create social media accounts. If they proceed, the guardian gains full access to the minor’s account, with default curfew settings between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. Additionally, minors cannot receive unapproved direct messages, and their accounts are blocked from appearing in search results.

While there is mixed evidence suggesting a relationship between excessive social media usage and declining mental health, a recent study from Gallup reveals that parents have an even more prominent role than social media when it comes to well-being:

“The strength of the relationship between an adolescent and their parent is much more closely related to their mental health than their social media habits. When teens report having a strong, loving relationship with their parents or caretakers, their level of social media use no longer predicts mental health problems.”

Even if the mental health studies are correct, Utah’s law may not help teens most in need.

Implementing government regulations always comes with a cost, and in this case, the very thing this policy intends to help could be harmed as a result. Parenting could be taken from parents and given to social media companies and government bureaucrats.

Another trade-off looms: Will children growing up with restricted access to social media be disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in states and countries without such restrictions? Social media plays a key role, not just socially but also professionally. The effect of limited exposure to these platforms remains uncertain.

Beyond concerns about parental rights and career challenges, bills like these can seriously disrupt free markets and the prosperity we’ve seen them bring. Instead of restrictions, states and the federal government should focus on education. Indeed, many states are considering such digital literacy laws, following in Florida’s footsteps.

On the free speech side of social media regulations, the bills in Texas and Florida aimed to prevent social media companies from selectively influencing digital expression. The Texas law was challenged in court and upheld; the Florida law was challenged and struck down. Now these laws will be considered by the Supreme Court, and the outcome will have a big impact on the social media ecosystem.

Although it’s frustrating for social media companies to potentially influence users by removing, promoting, or de-ranking specific content besides pornography, they are within their rights to do so. Content moderation practices, whether strict or open, bring a great opportunity for competition.

For example, platforms like Rumble emerged in response to concerns that the big social media companies were unfairly moderating their content and attracting millions of users. This exemplifies the essence of free enterprise—problems inspire innovation, and competition drives improvement, allowing for diversification. But if social media companies in these states are compelled to adhere to the restrictive regulations, it will deter new startups and stifle growth.

The social media landscape is evolving rapidly, and regulations like these demand careful consideration. While the safety of minors online is paramount, for our kids and yours, it’s crucial to strike a balance that preserves parental rights, encourages innovation, protects free speech, and safeguards individual freedoms.

As we navigate this digital age, let’s remember that effective solutions should empower parents, consumers, and promote competition, not hinder progress with more government. These are the things that have provided the greatest human flourishing in free-market capitalism.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.