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Utah intends to sue social media companies over child safety

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, right, speaks alongside Gov. Spencer Cox as they announced the state's intent to sue social media companies, Jan. 23, 2023.
Courtesy Utah Attorney General's Office
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, right, speaks alongside Gov. Spencer Cox as they announced the state's intent to sue social media companies, Jan. 23, 2023.

Utah is preparing lawsuits against social media companies for not adequately protecting children from the dangers of their platforms.

Gov. Spencer Cox put companies like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter “on notice” for not doing enough to protect users’ mental health during his State of the State Address. Cox, alongside Attorney General Sean Reyes, followed that warning with the Jan. 23 announcement on Capitol Hill that the state was preparing to sue.

“We know that social media is linked with higher levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm,” Cox said. “Somebody needs to be held accountable to that. And until we start holding them accountable, they're not going to change it. They're making far too much money off of it. And so we have to change that. And this is one way that we can do it.”

Cox had already banned executive branch employees from using TikTok on state-owned devices in December, citing security concerns.

“Social media companies, they are the gatekeepers, the safeguards and they have an outsized role and responsibility in this,” Reyes said. “And just like the governor said, it's our intention through litigation to hold them to that role and responsibility.”

In 2021, whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents from Facebook, now Meta Platforms, that revealed the company knew of the negative effects its platforms have on mental health and broader society but chose to do little about it.

Social media is not itself inherently good or evil,” Reyes said. “But the overuse and abuse of social media, the manipulation of it, the unrealistic expectations fostered by it, have become so damaging to our kids that I believe, and I think it's clear the governor does too, the negative aspects of social media are an existential threat to our youth.”

Neither Cox nor Reyes would go into detail about which companies would be targeted, only that investigations into several companies have been underway for a “significant amount of time.” Cox said the lawsuits will be announced as soon as they are ready. The state is also looking to hire outside counsel to help with the cases.

Reyes said social media companies have been helpful to law enforcement in the past, but he still wants to encourage better policies in the future.

“They've helped us recover abducted children, they've helped identify victims,” he said. “They've been good on social messaging and awareness. But all of the good that they do does not excuse the fact that they're not doing enough. And that's what our frustration is.”

In addition to litigation, Cox said state legislation addressing age verification on social platforms, restrictions on data collection and banning cell phones in classrooms are also in the works.

“It really is about protecting our kids … This age verification piece, I think, is an absolute necessity that we are actually able to prevent young people from accessing social media,he said.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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