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May 08, 2023

Should teens need parental consent to open social media accounts? Some Pennsylvania lawmakers think so

State Sen. Vincent Hughes says legislation is needed to protect children from data mining and to help guard their mental health

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Social Media Parental Consent Magnus Mueller/Pexels

Under legislation expected to be introduced in Pennsylvania, social media companies would be required to obtain parental consent before children open accounts.

Social media companies would be required to obtain verifiable consent from parents of Pennsylvania children who attempt to open accounts under a proposed bill. They also would be mandated to notify parents if accounts are created without their consent. 

Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from Philadelphia, and Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a Republican from York County, plan to introduce legislation aimed at protecting minors and their mental health on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Youtube and Snapchat. A growing collection of data suggests children and teens are increasingly struggling with mental health issues and that social media use is one of several contributing factors.

If passed, the bill would require children under 16 years old to get consent from a parent or legal guardian before opening a social media account. If a child opens an account without parental consent, the social media platform would be required to shut it down and notify the child's parents. 

The bill also would prohibit data mining for users under 18 and allow existing users to request social media sites delete information collected before they turned 18. Parents would have a pathway to sue companies for harm to their children's mental health. 

Hughes, the bill's primary sponsor, said the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 already supports parents and children navigating the internet, but that new protections are needed to account for rapid developments in social networking and social media, especially regarding children and online data mining. 

"Our current law for teen social media use is outdated and inadequate," Hughes said. "We know the impact social media is having on young people and the drastic changes to how young people use social media since COPPA became law. We must act now to protect our children." 

In a co-sponsorship memo, the lawmakers referenced the lawsuit Bucks County officials filed against the companies behind TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. The suit alleges that the platforms have worsened anxiety and depression rates among young people. 

A 2022 survey of Bucks County schools found that 34% of youth were at risk for developing moderate or severe depression and more than 25% of students reported a history of suicidal ideation. 

As many as 95% of American teens reported using YouTube and about 67% reported using TikTok regularly in 2022, according to data from Pew Research Center. The Mayo Clinic notes that greater social media use and nighttime social media use among children have been linked to impaired sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to social media platforms to stay connected to the world without leaving their homes. Americans spent an average of 82 minutes a day on social media in 2020, a 7-minute jump from 2019. Though social media can help thwart feelings of isolation, experts say excessive use can heighten the risk for loneliness, depression and anxiety. 

"I am proud to work on this legislation with Sen. Hughes to better safeguard and protect the data of our children and put parents in the driver's seat over their children's well-being," Phillips-Hill said. "The Senate has made protecting our online assets and cybersecurity a priority with bipartisan support, and this legislation continues that important work." 

Pennsylvania is not the only state looking to limit social media use among kids and teens. Utah became the first state to institute limits, requiring parental consent in addition to barring kids from using the platforms during school hours. Officials in Ohio are championing a proposal that would require parental consent even if children meet platforms' minimum age requirements

A bill introduced in Connecticut earlier this month would require age verification to use apps like Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The companies would be required to delete an account within 10 days if a parent requests it based on a lack of consent. 

Hughes and Phillips-Hill's bill is inspired by the Clean Slate For Kids Online Act, federal legislation first introduced by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin in 2021. The bill, reintroduced in February, would allow parents and minors to request social media companies delete data collected from children before they turned 13. 

Once the bill is introduced in the state Senate, it will be referred to a committee for further hearings and a possible vote.