Apr 17, 2023 - News

What Arkansas' parental consent for social media means

Illustration of a line of people all looking at cell phones or tablets, with like, comment, and social icons above their heads.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed legislation last week requiring social media companies to verify ages and obtain parental consent for users younger than 18 who're trying to open new accounts.

The big picture: Supporters of the Social Media Safety Act say it can help protect children from harmful effects of social media, while others say the move raises privacy, free speech and enforceability concerns.

  • The legislation's sponsor, state Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs), told the Arkansas Senate that minors are exposed to harmful people and inappropriate content on social media, arguing age verification would empower parents to protect their kids, Arkansas Advocate reported.

Details: The law requires companies to contract with third-party vendors to verify users' ages before allowing access to the platforms.

  • That includes providing a digitized identification card such as a driver's license, government-issued identification or "any commercially reasonable age verification method."
  • The law only applies to new users and goes into effect in September. Violations carry fines of $2,500 per offense.

What they're saying: While Meta has not said how it will comply, a spokesperson shared that the company already has tools that let parents limit the time teens spend on Instagram, as well as age-verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences. Meta doesn't allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders. More than 99% of content that Meta removes or takes action on is identified by the company before it's reported to Meta.

  • Representatives from TikTok and Snapchat did not respond to Axios NWA's requests for comment.

The other side: "The last time I read the First Amendment, it didn't say you had to be 18 years old to enjoy the rights of free speech," Larry Magid, president and CEO of ConnectSafely — a California-based nonprofit that advocates for online safety — told Axios.

  • Magid argued that while parents have the right to forbid their children from having social media accounts and companies have the right to only offer their services to adults, a law restricting access to social media violates free-speech rights.
  • He conceded that social media can pose some dangers for teens and that stronger age verification systems are needed. However, teens use social media for a variety of purposes, he noted, such as getting involved with political or religious groups. The platforms can also offer mental health resources for teens who lack such support in their communities.

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin told Axios he doesn't see any structural problems with the law.

  • "It's pretty clear that we are able to do what it charges us with doing, and I think that certainly there will be challenges to the extent it involves actors who are outside the state."

Zoom out: Utah last month became the first state to pass a law restricting minors' access to social media.

Catch up quick: Arkansas also recently filed three lawsuits against social media companies, including one against Meta that claims Facebook and Instagram target youth with algorithms that are "deliberately engineered to exploit the fragility of young users' brains" to maximize engagement and release "continuous dopamine hits."

  • Griffin told Axios he ultimately wants accountability. The core of the lawsuits is about deception on the companies' part — not content, he said.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.


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