Florida: Law to exclude children from social media

Children online
The law is likely to be a turning point for the (online) lives of the children and youths affected.(Source: IMAGO / Westend61)

The US state, Florida, has banned social media platforms from entering into contract with minors under 14 years of age. It is to be no longer possible for children to open or hold accounts. The maintainers of these sites must also delete already existing accounts if they belong to people under 14 years of age.

Florida’s governor, Ronald DeSantis (Republican), signed a law in this respect on Monday. It is expected to go into effect at the beginning of 2025. Consequently, Florida is the first US state to completely prohibit the use of social media for children under 14.

Even older youths are affected by the regulations: If 14 and 15-year-olds want to use social media platforms, they must provide platforms with permission from their parents. If they are unable to do so, maintainers of the site must delete existing accounts.

According to the law, platforms with pornographic content must additionally implement an age verification system.

Against mental health issues or free speech?

In a press conference on Monday, DeSantis portrayed the measures as a means for helping parents protect their children. In his statement, he said that social media hurts children in many ways.

Advocates anticipate that the law will curb the damaging effects social media has on the well-being of children. From their point of view, the platforms also bear responsibility for spreading mental health issues among children and youths like anxiety, depression or even suicidal thoughts.

In comparison, critics see the law as a violation of the first amendment in the US constitution that protects freedom of speech. Additionally, they view it as a violation of parents’ own rights for deciding their children’s online activities.

“This bill goes too far in taking away parents’ rights,” criticizes the Democratic representative, Anna Eskamani on Monday in a statement. “Instead of banning social media access, it would be better to ensure improved parental oversight tools, improved access to data to stop bad actors, alongside major investments in Florida’s mental health systems and programs.”

NetChoice, an industry association that also includes companies such as Meta, Snap and TikTok spoke out in disappointment against DeSantis’ agreement with the law. In particular, the organization criticized the required age verification and accompanying proof of identity on X: “This level of data collection will put Floridians’ privacy at risk while violating their rights.” There are better ways to protect the population and their data online.

According to the law, user accounts that are suspected of being used by children would also need to be deleted. It is sufficient for platforms to treat or categorize the account as if it belonged to a child – and display corresponding content and advertising. Should an account be unjustifiably deleted, the law gives users 90 days time to appeal.

Parents can apply to have the accounts deleted from their children who are 14 and under. The platform must then delete all information in connection with the account within ten days. This does not apply to data that must be retained by law. If a 14 or 15 year old wishes to have their account deleted, the social networks must comply within five days.

Convoluted definitions

It has only been defined in a non-specific way which services are to be affected by the law. At any rate, websites and apps are excluded whose main purpose is the exchange of messages between specific senders and recipients. Email providers and instant messengers (like WhatsApp) have explicitly been named as exceptions in the legal text.

The law defines which social media platforms are affected by the law based on four criteria that must all be met: Users must be able to upload content or see content from other users, at least one tenth of users under the age of 16 must have spent an average of at least two hours per day of use on the platform within the last 12 months, algorithms must analyze user data as well as select content for users based on this, and the platform must have addictive functions. For the latter, endless scrolling and loading overview pages, as well as autoplaying videos come into consideration.

Law still at a tipping point

The text of the law that has now been passed is already a watered-down version. The ultra-conservative DeSantis already vetoed an even more restrictive version of the text at the beginning of March. Originally, the Senate and House of Representatives envisioned that in general users would first be able to register a social media account starting at 16. The governor justified his objection with the right of parents to decide themselves whether and how their children use social media platforms.

Whether or not the law will remain in place is unclear. Because states like Utah, Arkansas, Texas and Ohio have already enacted similar but less strict regulations for protecting children and youths from the effects of social media platforms. US federal courts overruled some of them because they deemed them as a violation of freedom of speech.

Among other things, the law demands that user accounts can only be created with with a previous age verification or that certain social media platforms and apps already activate the strictest data protection options during account registration. (hcz)