Let’s not pooh pooh Utah laws that help parents keep their children safe online


It may be tempting to dismiss the new Utah law – the first in America – that gives parents full control of children’s social media.

How are parents in Utah going to limit TikTok and Instagram use and impose an overnight ‘curfew’, one might wonder.

Will Utah’s children not rebel if their parents continue to poke and pry into their accounts, including private messages? At the very least, won’t they be so very huffy and unpleasant that weary parents will be forced to give in and allow exceptions to the rules?

All of the above is possible and illustrates the difficulties of parenting in the age of mobile telephony and social media, connectivity.

But that doesn’t mean this Utah law (and a companion piece of legislation) should be dismissed out of hand. The second law goes even further to help parents and discourage tech companies from preying on young children. It will make it easier for parents to sue social media companies for financial, physical or emotional harm and it also sets out fines if they target under-18s with advertising. Similar regulations are being considered in other US states including Ohio, Texas and New Jersey. California already has measures that ensure higher privacy features for the under-18s.

These laws, which will come into effect next March, illustrate the seriousness with which the issue of protecting children is being taken. They could be a template of sorts for other parts of the world.

In Britain, the move to protect young people has been spurred by the public campaign conducted by the family of 14-year-old Molly Russell.

She died in 2017 from an act of self-harm while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content. An inquest found that social media content contributed “more than minimally” to her death. The coroner noted that the images of self-harm and suicide Molly viewed “shouldn’t have been available for a child to see”. He also said that Instagram and picture-sharing site Pinterest had used algorithms that resulted in there being “binge periods” of such material, some of which was selected and provided for Molly without her having requested it. In a first for both Meta, which owns Instagram, and Pinterest, senior executives from the companies gave evidence under oath in a UK court during the inquest in September.

This has helped propel ambitious plans to legislate and rein in tech companies but Britain’s planned Online Safety Bill has fallen victim to months of political chaos. It is now expected to become law by the autumn and will require Facebook, YouTube and other social media giants to quickly remove illegal content like revenge porn or hate speech, or face hefty penalties. There could even be criminal prosecutions for tech executives who fail to act. But as Politico noted, the Bill “has become a litmus test for what the United Kingdom stands for as it charts its own path after leaving the European Union” and there are doubts it can deliver on the “UK’s twin promises of creating a safer internet and promoting itself as a place to do business — all while upholding freedom of speech”.