Utah's Rep. Chris Stewart proposes new social media rules for ages under 16

Utah Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart speaks before the House Republican Caucus at the Utah State Capitol in January 2018 in Salt Lake City.
Utah Republican U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart speaks before the House Republican Caucus at the Utah State Capitol in January 2018 in Salt Lake City.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Wednesday he is preparing federal legislation that would ban social media accounts for anyone younger than 16.

In an interview with the ABC4 Utah show Inside Utah Politics, Stewart cited studies showing young adults exhibiting increased anxiety and depression, with suicide rates and diagnosed behavioral health issues rising in the years since social media use has become popular.

"This thing is destructive for young women, I'm talking young teenagers, and their emotional health for their own sense of worth, their kind of 'where am I in the world,'" Stewart said in the interview with show host Glen Mills. The full episode is scheduled to air on Sunday at 8 a.m.

Social media use among young people accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, with overall screen use among teens and tweens increasing by 17% from 2019 to 2021, according to a recent survey published by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research organization. The survey found that children ages 8 to 12 spent an average of five hours and 33 minutes on screens each day, while those ages 13 to 18 spent seven hours and 22 minutes.

Even before the pandemic, 95% of teens could access a smartphone and spend multiple hours a day on a screen, according to the Pew Research Center in 2019.

Stewart said his proposal would force social media companies to improve their age verification measures and that he wanted to give individual states and parents the ability to file civil lawsuits when rules are violated. The U.S. prohibits websites from collecting information on children younger than 13 without parental permission, but parental advocacy groups have argued that age limit should be raised. There are also concerns that the rules are rarely if ever enforced.

"We protect our kids from drugs, alcohol, and all sorts of things. And there’s no question about the tragic effect that social media has on a child’s mental health," Stewart wrote on Twitter after the interview.

Parent groups and advocates have long expressed concerns about social media use among young people, with increased screen time often associated with health problems and greater social anxiety. Some argue children can stumble across pornography, images of self-harm or posts that promote disordered eating or other unhealthy practices.

Social media companies have repeatedly introduced new features they claimed could make their services safer and more age-appropriate, including measures that block strangers from messaging kids. But critics contend that they have done nothing to address they way young people can get around the age limits by simply lying about their age.

The platforms place the burden of enforcement on parents and do little or nothing to screen for inappropriate and harmful material served up by algorithms that can affect teens’ mental and physical well-being, said Irene Ly, privacy counsel at Common Sense Media.

The more teens keep scrolling, the more engaged they get — and the more engaged they are, the more profitable they are to the platforms, Ly said.

"I don’t think they have too much incentive to be changing that."

Stewart's concerns focused on the apparent ties between social media and mental health in young people, especially girls.

"Everything they look at is, number one, artificial. It's not real," he said. "And everything they look at is designed to make them feel like (they) don't add up."

This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Utah lawmaker proposes social media rules for ages 16 and under