SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) — U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) told ABC4 today he plans to introduce federal legislation that would enact a ban on social media accounts for any child under the age of 16.
Stewart outlined his proposal to Inside Utah Politics host Glen Mills. His full interview will air on ABC4 on Sunday, Jan. 22 at 8 a.m.
Stewart said the bill will have a handful of primary aims, including giving individual states and parents the ability to file civil lawsuits against social media sites if it can be shown those sites led to children harming themselves. Stewart said that a national surveys of thousands of young adults often talk about those teens experiencing increased anxiety or depression, while others have considered suicide and talked to a friend about how they would do it.
“But the thing is, you can look and pinpoint the moment when this began to change,” said Stewart. “And it was actually in 2012, when Facebook bought Instagram and they started advertising and marketing to 9-, 10-, 11- and 12-year-old girls and then the same age group of young men.”
Stewart said the average 13 year old spends nine hours a day on social media. The average 8 year old spends five hours a day. The congressman admitted that he chose the age of 16 for his bill more out of political expediency than anything else. It was difficult to choose an age since social media may have broad effects on a number of children. Age 16, he said, is an age where the government decides teens can drive, get jobs and have other responsibilities younger children aren’t yet trusted with. It was also an age he felt his colleagues would support.
“This thing is destructive for young women. I’m talking young teenagers, and their emotional health,” Stewart said. “…Everything that they look at is, number one, artificial, it’s not real. And everything they look at is designed to make them feel like you don’t add up, you’re not as good, you’re not as beautiful, you’re not as active, you don’t have the same group of friends.”
The congressman also said his bill would support parents who believe that younger teens shouldn’t have access to tech like smartphones. Under the current landscape, those children end up feeling “isolated,” Stewart said, because they aren’t on social media. The bill would create a social pushback to that isolation by blocking all children at that age from having accounts.
The congressman said he knows not everyone will agree with his bill, though he believes it will have wide bipartisan support in Congress. He likened his bill to the establishment of 988, the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, a measure that saw support from Republlicans and Democrats alike.
He said conversations with U.S. Pres. Joe Biden’s staff have led him to believe the president will also support the measure, especially after Biden published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 11. The piece specifically called on Congress to enact more regulations on Big Tech companies.
And how does Stewart plan to deal with Big Tech’s resistance to his bill?
“You just kind of put on your helmet and prepare to get beat over the head because they don’t like this,” Stewart said. “I mean, we’ve had initial conversations with them. If they can bring someone in and socialize — no pun intended — but socialize them into using social media at 9, 10, 11, 12 years old, they’ll have them for life. So, they of course want to keep this pipeline.”
Stewart said, technically, it’s already illegal for children under 13 to use social media, but there are currently no enforcement measures in place, nor is there any legal recourse for parents if their kids break that law and get a social media account — especially if they harm themselves or incur mental health costs due to use of social media.
The key, he said, is forcing social media platforms to enact age verification measures. While Stewart said Big Tech has said in the past that age verification is too hard to implement, the congressman said he doesn’t believe that.
“They know everything about every one of us anyway,” said Stewart. “They know how old this person is. They won’t admit that.”
According to Stewart, the bill will also require social media companies to establish and maintain reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security and integrity of personal information collected from both current users and prospective users. It would also direct the Federal Trade Commission to fine social media sites that violate regulations.