The legislation aims to address a “mental health crisis” among teens, in addition to protecting young people from cyber addiction, online harassment and sexual exploitation. Last week, Utah passed unprecedented legislation to regulate social media access for young people under 18. As of March 2024, minors in this state will need parental consent to create an account on apps like TikTok and Instagram. In addition, parents will be able to access their children’s messages exchanged on the platform and decide to block access to their account between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. That’s not all. The Republican state has approved a second law that will prevent tech companies from using features that could make young people “addicted” to their platforms.

That’s the million dollar question. How the new restrictions will be applied is unclear. Facebook already requires the minimum age of 13 to register on its platform, but it is very easy to circumvent the obligation. “In reality, there is no way to systematically and credibly verify the age of people who register or are active on social networks,” said Pierre Trudel, professor of law at the University of Montreal. And Utah adds a layer of complexity by requiring minors to provide parental consent. “It’s a bit of wishful thinking. These laws are often symbolic – legislators pass them to give themselves an image of protecting children,” said the cyberspace law specialist.

That’s the other problem. As soon as the law was adopted, voices were raised to denounce what they consider to be a threat to the privacy and freedom of expression of minors. Imagine: controlling parents digging into their teenagers’ private chats or cutting them off social media altogether. “A near-adult adolescent may rightly demand privacy,” notes Mr. Trudel. Then social networks are also good. Developing friendships, staying informed, connecting with one’s culture: the measure would deprive young people of their main communication tool. Make no mistake about it: young people will find a way around the new restrictions, believes Nina Duque, a lecturer at the University of Quebec in Montreal and a specialist in digital practices among adolescents. “Rather than having practices that can be seen and monitored, they will hide what they are doing and can put themselves in dangerous situations,” she fears.

According to Nina Duque, Utah is on the wrong track. The bill is going after the wrong target by tapping the fingers of young people, she believes. Instead, we must better regulate the behavior of web giants and legislate on the content published on social networks. Above all, states must address systemic and structural issues that are reflected online. “It’s not young people’s use of social media that’s at the heart of phishing, cyberbullying, sleep deprivation or physical inactivity,” she says, citing life experiences and family status as more important factors in young people’s well-being. “If we stop at this surface, at this first reading of what is happening, we will not solve the problem, she believes firmly. It’s easy to punish young people. They have no voice. »

We already see it elsewhere. Arkansas has introduced a similar bill, while in Texas, a Republican lawmaker has proposed banning all minors from using social media. In recent years, several countries, including France and the United Kingdom, have expressed the desire to better regulate the activities of children online, in particular by prohibiting them from accessing pornographic sites. “The Missing Link is an efficient and non-intrusive device to attest to identity. There is no solution emerging at the moment,” concludes jurist Pierre Trudel.