Florida lawmakers pass bill to ban social media for children under 16

By Thomson Reuters Feb 23, 2024 | 1:58 PM

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature has passed legislation that would ban children ages 16 and younger from social media platforms in a move that supporters have said would protect young people from online risks to their mental health.

The measure, which now goes to the desk of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, would require social media platforms to terminate the accounts of anyone under 17 years old and use a third-party verification system to screen out those who are underage.

The measure was passed by Florida House of Representatives in a vote of 108-7 on Thursday, just hours after the state Senate gave final approval.

DeSantis, who has not indicated whether he will sign the measure, last month expressed concerns about its potential infringement on privacy rights. A spokesperson for his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Supporters have said the legislation would protect children from the harmful effects of social media on the well-being of those who use such platforms excessively, including anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.

Critics have said the bill violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protections for free speech and that parents, not the government, should make decisions about the online presence of their children.

Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, has opposed the legislation, saying it would limit parental discretion and raise data privacy concerns because of the personal information users would have to provide to be age-verified. Meta has said it supports federal legislation for online app stores to secure parental approval for downloads by people younger than 16.

The bill does not name any specific social media platforms, but states that its targets are social media sites that promote “infinite scrolling,” display reaction metrics such as likes, feature auto-play videos and have live-streaming and push notifications. It would exempt websites and apps whose main function is email, messaging or texting between a particular sender and recipient.

Florida House Speaker Paul Renner said lawmakers crafted the measure to address potential concerns about possible privacy rights violations.

“We’ve addressed constitutional concerns by narrowly focusing the scope of the bill on the addictive features, added enhanced anonymity provisions to the age verification process to protect user data, and incorporated meaningful penalties to hold Big Tech accountable,” Renner, a Republican, posted on the social media platform X on Thursday.

The bill would require social media companies to permanently delete personal information collected from terminated accounts and let parents bring civil lawsuits against those failing to do so.

Utah in March 2023 became the first U.S. state to adopt laws regulating children’s access to social media, followed by others including Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio and Texas, according to a legislative analysis prepared for the Florida bill. The analysis said numerous other states were contemplating similar regulations.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)