FOSI Briefs the States: Striking the Right Balance in Online Safety

Over the past two years online safety policy has become a top priority throughout state capitals. While many states have embraced their own unique cultures and taken different approaches from each other, it is clear that protecting children online is a bipartisan issue. We started this FOSI Briefs the States event series to highlight these recent policy developments and discuss the important, nuanced, and timely issue that is online safety.

In March 2023, Utah became the first state to pass a law regulating social media use for children and teens. Utah’s SB 152 prohibits kids under 18 from using social media during certain hours, requires parental consent for kids to join the platform, and requires age verification for all users. Policymakers have blamed social media for negatively affecting teenage mental health while others have suggested that providing access to information and building communities online has benefits and positive impacts on mental health. Another Utah law, HB 311, aims to hold social media companies liable for harms caused to children.

Utah’s Social Media Regulation Acts passed in March of this year but do not go into effect until March 2024. State Senator Michael McKell recently expressed that there is both opportunity and motivation to amend these laws in the next legislative session before they are implemented.

On September 12, 2023, FOSI held our second FOSI Briefs the States event in Salt Lake City Utah: Striking the Right Balance in Online Safety. The hybrid event included a networking luncheon, and a panel discussion to explore Utah’s new law and what it means to balance keeping children safe online while allowing them opportunities to learn and explore age appropriate materials.

The panel included:

  • Taylor Barkley, Utah State University Center for Growth and Opportunity
  • Anne Collier, NetSafety Project
  • Melanie Durfee, Utah State Board of Education
  • Andrew Zack, FOSI (moderator)

Anne Collier kicked off the panel discussing her work reviewing and contributing to research on the mental health impacts of digital technology use, a very real issue that was acknowledged at the outset of the panel. Anne urged policymakers around the world to learn from each other, especially about the benefits of a trusted flaggers program featured in the EU’s Digital Services Act and utilizing Utah’s existing mental health phone lines by making them into Internet helplines. Anne also recommended for parents to be a steady presence in our kids’ lives and underlined the importance of digital literacy, media literacy, and social emotional learning.

Taylor Barkley discussed the complicated and nuanced research into adolescent technology use and how the issue is personal and hits home for many families. Taylor dove deep into age assurance as required by Utah’s law and the important and often difficult tradeoffs of rights to privacy and free expression. However, Taylor noted how other states and governments have tried to balance privacy and safety laws.

Melanie Durfee explained the impressive amount of technology that Utah students have at their disposal. Their student to technology ratio exceeds 1:1, meaning they have more laptops, tablets, and other devices than students. Ms. Durfee went on to discuss Utah’s Portrait of a Graduate resource which includes digital literacy as one of 13 goals for each Utah student.

In the race to protect children from online harms, the need for thoughtful policy, safe industry practices, and meaningful resources for parents and caregivers is paramount. FOSI encourages enlightened public policy that is evidence-based and nuanced in order to be the most effective.

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.