In March, the Utah Social Media Regulation Act, S.B. 152, became law. It adopts almost all the recommendations in this report, which Governor Cox’s signing statement referenced. The Utah law prompted a spate of similar laws passed in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia.

These laws respond to a fundamental question about our society, namely, who has the power to raise children: social media platforms or parents? The Supreme Court said almost 100 years ago in Pierce v. Society of Sisters: “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose . . . [is that] the child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” The principle still applies in the internet age.

S.B. 152 does four things, each designed to give parents the power to control what their kids see and who talks to them online, as opposed to making TikTok or Instagram’s authority the default. First, it requires social media companies to verify the age of Utah residents seeking to maintain or create a social media account. Parental consent is necessary before anyone under 18 may maintain or open an account. The verification process requires government-issued ID or similar documents; mere click-through affirmation of age is insufficient. Second, S.B. 152 prohibits strangers from direct messaging minors, advertising to minors, and collecting information from minors’ accounts. Third, the Act limits hours of access, subject to parental or guardian direction. Fourth, it requires social media companies to provide parents or guardians access to their children’s accounts.

Those objecting to the law’s age verification requirements typically point to ACLU v. Ashcroft, the 2004 Supreme Court decision that struck down age verification for pornography sites. But the Utah law is quite different from the law invalidated in that case. It requires verification for a minor to form an account, which is a contract; it does not regulate a minor visiting a site. The law does not regulate speech; it regulates contract formation and, therefore, has no direct First Amendment implications.

Contract law is a creature of state law, and states require parental consent for minors entering all sorts of contracts for services or receiving privileges, including getting a tattoo, obtaining a driver’s license, using a tanning facility, purchasing insurance, and signing liability waivers. As a general rule, all contracts with minors are valid, but with certain exceptions they are voidable. And even though a minor can void most contracts he enters into, most jurisdictions have laws that hold a minor accountable for the benefits he received under the contract. Because children can make enforceable contracts for which parents could end up bearing responsibility, it is a reasonable regulation to require parental consent for such contracts. The few courts that have addressed the question of the enforceability of online contracts with minors have held the contracts enforceable on the receipt of the mildest benefit.

Opponents of these laws have argued that age verification chills the speech of adults. But S.B. 152 is no more chilling than requiring age verification from an author seeking to enter into a book publishing contract, an individual seeking to purchase a book online using a credit card, or anyone who wants to go into a bar for a discussion. Government can lawfully require age verification for whole swathes of activities—from publishing to buying books to bar hopping—that involve speech without implicating the First Amendment. Regulating social media accounts is no different.

Equally important, S.B. 152 intends only to give parents power to shield their children from the harmful effects of social media. It is not aimed at restricting speech—certainly not speech of any particular content. Rather, it is the media itself and its baleful effects on children that S.B. 152 aims to counter. Psychologists and other social scientists have documented the disturbing increase in mental illness, depression, and loneliness among young people, particularly young women, who are heavy users of social media. President Biden’s Surgeon General calls this collapse in children’s emotional wellbeing the “crisis of our times.” According to the CDC, nearly one in three high school girls considered suicide in 2021, a 60% increase since 2011. Teen depression doubled between 2010 and 2019. Emergency room admissions for self-harm among 10- to 14-year-old girls tripled between 2009 and 2015. Many researchers, like Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, blame social media use for this collapse in the wellbeing of an entire generation. Their findings concerning social media’s negative effects have been replicated frequently in ever more rigorous studies.

The platforms’ supporters also claim that Utah’s age verification law negatively impacts privacy because social media account holders would have to furnish a government-issued ID, authenticated bank statement, or similar evidence to open an account. Of course, no industry has done more than social media to destroy privacy. On this issue, the social media firms shed crocodile tears. More important, S.B. 152 has no substantial impact on privacy. The law prohibits social media companies from keeping or storing the age verification information. And there are numerous minimally invasive verification techniques that do not require sharing any age verification at all with the platforms. For instance, a trusted third party could verify age and provide a QR code or similar device to the social media firm, establishing age without the platform even seeing the age verification documents or even the user’s identity.

S.B. 152 also prohibits strangers from direct messaging minors and advertising to minors. This requirement does limit strangers from addressing and speaking to children. But the Supreme Court has recognized in Rowan v. U.S. Post Office Dep’t that parents have the right to block unwanted solicitations and communications that could harm children. If parents can prevent mailed paper solicitations to their kids consistent with the First Amendment, they should have the power to limit online analogs.

The Court has never recognized a generalized First Amendment right of individuals to communicate with children against their parents’ wishes. Nor should it. It is fundamental to American liberty that neither the government nor social media platforms should play a dominant role in transmitting cultural values. Rather, that job belongs to parents, as Pierce established so long ago. S.B. 152 simply recognizes this principle for an online age.

Third, S.B. 172 limits hours of access, subject to parental or guardian direction. This requirement mirrors constitutional state laws on curfews, as well as laws requiring parental consent for children being in certain public places at a late hour. The time limitations also mirror broadcast restrictions, still effect, on indecent broadcasting.

Finally, S.B. 172’s requirement that a social media company provide a parent or guardian access to their children’s accounts raises no red flags. Children have no recognized rights of privacy against their parents, except in a few rare situations. Neither do children have a legal privacy interest in their social media posts, which are public after all.

The Supreme Court’s early internet decisions, such as Reno v. ACLU and Ashcroft v. ACLU reflect an early, benign view of the internet that, two decades later, looks naïve. Indeed, some of the Court’s factual claims in Reno and Ashcroft now seem absurd, such as “filters are more effective than age-verification requirements,” “the Internet is not as ‘invasive’ as radio or television,” and “[u]sers seldom encounter content by accident. . . . [and] odds are slim that a user would come across a sexually explicit sight by accident.”


S.B. 152 gives courts—and perhaps one day the Supreme Court—the chance for a more seasoned take on the internet. This second look should apply established precedent to uphold state laws that intelligently and reasonably respond to social media’s threats and destructive power.

Note from the Editor: The Federalist Society takes no positions on particular legal and public policy matters. Any expressions of opinion are those of the author. We welcome responses to the views presented here. To join the debate, please email us at [email protected].