States from every part of the country are racing to pass new legislation barring young users from accessing social media and other online services without first obtaining consent from their parents. From Texas to New Jersey, lawmakers are preparing to enforce strict, constitutionally dubious laws that could fundamentally alter the way young people interact online all in the name of supposedly protecting them from social media’s most harmful effects. Most, if not all of these laws, will face multiple rounds of legal challenges. In the end, 2023 could be remembered as the year the US decided to age-gate the internet.
The logic behind the bills holds that exposure to social media exposure at a young age could lead to deleterious mental health outcomes. It has evolved in recent years from an understandable, but data-deficient theory to a field of study supported by some of the nation’s top health authorities. Child safety advocates point to dozens of recent studies appearing to link prolonged exposure to social media at young ages to increasing rates of teen depression and anxiety. Just last month, the US Surgeon General, who has taken a relatively conservative stance towards ascribing blame for a noted rise in teen mental health issues, released a public advisory noting there are “ample indicators” that social media poses a “profound risk of harm” to children’s mental health and development.
States across the country are taking action, though often in profoundly different ways. While some lawmakers have called have opted to use a scalpel when crafting careful social media regulation, others have opted to bust out the chainsaw. Multiple states, including Arkansas and Louisiana, have proposed legislation flat-out banning children under the age of 18 from using certain services without parental consent. Lawmakers justify this siloing of internet access because they believe delaying social media exposure, similar to delaying the age people can drink or smoke cigarettes, could offset some of the worst potential harms.