Utah just passed new legislation that will be the most restrictive in the country toward teens’ access to social media platforms, many of which have been shown to correlate with negative mental health outcomes for developing brains. You can listen or read an interview with Utah’s governor about their goals at NPR. A few facets of the bill:

  • Minors (under age 18) would be required to have parental consent to join a social media platform.
  • Minor accounts cannot be accessed between the hours of 10:30 PM and 6:30 AM.
  • Parents must be given access to their minor childrens’ social media accounts.
  • Age verification is required for anyone in the state opening a new social media account to prove that they are 18 years old (e.g. driver’s license).

There are a few things here that I like, and a few that I think are problematic. First, as a middle-aged adult, of course I yearn for the halcyon days of my youth when the biggest problems that plagued parents were too much hair mousse and teen pregnancy. It feels much harder to (have) parent(ed) kids whose lives are increasingly online, in communities that are largely invisible to us. I can’t give the stink-eye to my kids’ rotten friends if they aren’t physically at the house in front of me (my kids’ friends have also all been respectable, but you know, theoretically). Aside from that, and despite my best efforts, I just don’t get the appeal of platforms like Instagram and TikTok. When I found out my daughter had a Finsta, I had a flash of hurt feelings thinking she was trying to keep me from seeing the “real” her, but then I realized that it was more about social groups and less about me as a parent (and since I look at Instagram about once every 3 months, it’s not like I’m really seeing her stuff anyway). Not one of my kids is on Facebook which is an “old person platform.”

I am concerned about the amount of time kids and young adults are spending online, including the late hours, and it only got worse during the pandemic. Missing school and missing college classes after spending hours online overnight doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff. These social media rabbit holes lead to lives that can be, if not isolated (I consider online communities to be social interactions after all), then a bad prioritization of how to spend one’s time–even my kids (as adults) agree with that, and how it can lead to feeling depressed.

Parents’ rights has become a new hobby horse for conservatives, usually in the realm of education. Consider the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation in Florida or the “anti-CRT” legislation that is designed to give parents the right to object to content that they say makes their child uncomfortable. In reality, the issue is that these are topics that seem to make some parents uncomfortable, primarily conservatives who don’t want to be seen as racist or homophobic or transphobic, especially if they are. Will eliminating access to the truth about slavery or allowing kids to see that homosexual teachers and parents exist and are normal result in kids’ not questioning their parents’ values and behaviors? Maybe.

On the upside, parental involvement in their kids’ education and social lives can be a positive. Kids can’t parent themselves; parents need to be informed. Parents can help prevent things like cyberbullying and restrictions may prevent some of the most vulnerable kids from predators. Schools should be accountable to local communities and responsive to their needs, and parents should be involved with their kids’ schools.

On the downside, an emphasis on parental rights in education is leading to more and more teachers leaving the field due to fear of legal retribution if a rogue parent decides to go full Karen and sue them over a harmless remark in some states that are using litigation as the means to enforce their anti-LGBT or anti-CRT agendas. There are inherent conflicts of interest between parents. Which parents get to decide on community education priorities? Marginalized and mintority members of the community are often shouted down when parental rights are emphasized. The loudest voices, the majority, those with privilege, often carry the day. Parents also may not be educated themselves on topics like education, and since most of us grew up with a somewhat white-washed version of history, we may not be in a position to understand a more informed approach.

Lastly, to bring us back to the topic of social media and parents’ rights, there is a unique element to this legislation that is potentially problematic. No doubt, some conservatives are hopeful that eliminating access to online support communities will also stem the tide of young people self-identifying as queer or trans. If everyone is back in the closet, it (re)creates a high hurdle to coming out by eliminating the online social support communities who share their stories of coming out. If parents are unsupportive, these types of intrusions can even lead to teens feeling paranoid and hopeless and can exacerbate suicidal ideation or lead to conflicts that result in parents kicking their kids out or using debunked approaches like conversion therapy.

Parental monitoring of social media activity is problematic in the most basic way possible. Where do teens go to explore their private thoughts, to find like-minded peers, to determine their own burgeoning adult values, if Mom & Dad are literally always watching? It sounds like a dystopian hellscape. Teen me would have been fine since my parents weren’t that interested and would never have even considered something snoopy like reading my diary. Parents who want access to all their teens’ private thoughts are frankly the last ones who should be granted such access. We want to protect kids, but we have a problem with being more attuned to external threats like online predators while ignoring the far more pervasive threats of parental control and domestic violence. We worry more about stranger-danger rape than all-too-common incest.

Back to the 4 facets of this legislation, here’s how I grade each one:

  • Parental consent for minors to join social media. B- I’m mostly agnostic on this one. It probably will just create a sub-group of weird kids whose parents don’t let them on social media. Normal parents will probably mostly allow it. Social norms and peer pressure will prevail.
  • Minor accounts not being allowed access between 10:30 and 6:30. A+ I love this one, honestly. I wish I had a time machine to go back and make this happen for my own kids, and maybe even for myself. I truly see no downside to this one.
  • Parents given access to their kids’ social media. D- This one is pretty dangerous, IMO, in terms of doing more harm than good to kids’ mental health and its chilling effect on LGBT kids. It probably depends on the kid and the parent just how much this creates a thought police state in which the kid feels they are being controlled and monitored. This one mostly exacerbates the damage bad parents will do, or so I think. Normal parents are going to probably not intervene unless there’s a real concern, and it could be good in some cases if so, but I’m not sure whether that makes up for the harm done by bad parents.
  • Age verification for all new social media accounts. No grade, really. This is just something you obviously have to do for any of this to be possible (to have different rules for minors).

There’s one other effect that I didn’t mention that could occur. When I first got to BYU as an 18 YO, one of the weird culture shocks I experienced was that my new Utah friends had never heard the song “Physical,” and had only heard a censored version of “I Want Your Sex,” two songs that were mainstream popular when I was in high school (although not personal favorites). I was culture shocked a little bit to discover that due to them growing up in Utah, they had a slightly sanitized version of things that were just in the normal cultural milieu where I had grown up. I suspect that legislative actions like this will have a similar effect as Utah teens become adults and eventually integrate into larger society. Time will tell what that will look like.

As I think about this parents’ rights trend, I am reminded of a line from one of my favorite old movies, a Bette Davis film called Now, Voyager. Davis plays a wealthy spinster with a controlling mother who has a mental breakdown, goes to therapy, then falls in love with a married man whose daughter has similar mental health issues. In the movie, her psychiatrist Dr. Jacquith confronts her controlling mother Mrs. Vale. Mrs. Vale is angry at having her decisions thwarted and undermined by this newly independent daughter. She rages at the doctor about her rights as a parent.

“A mother’s rights, twaddle. A child has rights, a person has rights, to discover her own mistakes, to make her own way, ..”

Dr. Jaquith, Now, Voyager

Perhaps this is just the age-old tension between kids growing up and learning to be adults and parents learning how to let them. In that struggle, both are subject to paranoia. It’s a U-curve prone to bad outcomes at both extremes: too many controls and too few. While I think the educational emphasis on parents’ rights has been extremely detrimental, this social media approach is more of a mixed bag.

I’m sure every social media company will fight against this, but it seems like something they will have a hard time winning, especially since most of them currently take efforts to provide limits for minors, but without actually knowing who’s really a minor and who’s not.

  • Will Utah teens be culturual oddities like the stereotype of Evangelical homeschool kids or will they be like the well-adjusted kids the legislation is hoping to create?
  • How would you rate the Utah legislation?
  • Are you in favor of parents’ rights? Are you concerned about the downsides?