DANIEL VAUGHAN: Social Media's Wild West Is Over

 March 27, 2024

The Wild West era of social media is closing. In the early internet, social media sites were simplistic, providing a way for people to share with friends and access the internet. MySpace introduced the first true influencers. Facebook, combined with Instagram, cranked that to the next level, giving us the modern social media era. After two decades of free reign, governments have decided this area needs regulation.

In fairness to governments worldwide, they have a point, particularly regarding kids. We know this partially because companies like Facebook have studied the problem and know their products harm kids. States have looked at this, with compelling evidence, that these sites are targeting children and have come to the conclusion that they'll have to do something about it.

We've had a few laws pop up here and there, but Florida just passed the most restrictive law to date on social media. "Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation Monday that prohibits people under 14 years of age from having social-media accounts, regardless of parental consent, one of the most restrictive laws aimed at curbing social-media access for minors."

Further, "Under the new law, social-media companies are required to close accounts believed to be used by minors under 14. The platforms must also cancel accounts at the request of parents or minors, and all information from the accounts must be deleted."

Whether the law survives legal review remains to be seen. Still, Florida's basic impulse, shared by other states, countries, and parents in lawsuits across the nation, is that children shouldn't be on social media. Some parents have raised their kids without social media, aiming to prevent these harms.

And that's just the harm. One of the other main concerns is that children and teens are having their data sold by these companies. The Federal Trade Commission proposed a blanket ban in 2023 on Facebook from monetizing the data of youth. As a reminder, these companies say they try to police child access to their platforms to prevent, but they also know those same kids are using them and, in some cases, monetizing that data.

The legislative push is having an impact on the companies. Meta / Facebook pivoted in January to treat child and teen data on its platforms differently from that of adults. The changes aimed to "automatically restrict teen Instagram and Facebook accounts from harmful content including videos and posts about self-harm, graphic violence and eating disorders."

The central flaw in that argument is that it assumes there are some content types that are fine for underage users to view. Ironically, Meta is the one targeting speech. In contrast, Florida and other states are saying the platforms themselves are the problem. Meta is trying to claim that they can create a version of social media that's safe for kids. In contrast, states say social media is destructive and dangerous to children.

When states issue a blanket ban on selling alcohol to underage minors, the claim is simple: alcohol is destructive to a young mind, and they are not ready to handle that. Various liquor brands aren't trying to get around that by saying certain flavors or brands are acceptable for kids. They and any place that sells alcohol have a ban on who they can sell to.

When the vape company JUUL came to a settlement in a class action lawsuit, they did so because they were taking vape products with nicotine and targeting them at kids. States saw this as creating a dangerous addiction and needed to put restraints on these companies.

Florida's law follows a simple strategy that states have used for decades to protect minors from things they can't handle. It imposes a burden on social media companies to verify age. But that burden is mostly technological. Every waiter, waitress, and store clerk who checks a driver's license does a similar act in person.

What's becoming increasingly clear is that states won't be able to stand idly by and do nothing. After watching for two decades as social media companies watched a growing problem and either did nothing or exacerbated the issue, we've arrived at a point where something has to happen.

The TikTok ban is part of this, but that federal legislation targets a foreign country meddling in American domestic life. The Florida legislation and the bills that will follow it target what's happening on the family level. For the first time in the social media age, it's an attempt to build some guardrails around a technology that's allowed incredible connections but also brought some ills.

Is the Florida path the right way? It's hard to say. Litigation is inevitable, but it's also certain that even if this fails, we're going to see states on both sides of the aisle try to contain the problems from social media companies.

" A free people [claim] their rights, as derived from the laws of nature."
Thomas Jefferson
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