How much should 14-year-olds be on their phones? The effects of phones and social media on teenagers — and adults — continues to be at the center of public health, tech, civil liberties and more.
In March, Utah’s Republican governor, Spencer Cox, signed an extensive package of laws intended to limit kids’ access to social media platforms, including time restrictions and requirements that parents and guardians have access to private messages and posts. On Sunday, he said that Utah “in the coming months” would file lawsuits to hold tech companies accountable.
Utah’s laws were among the first in a tranche of actions by state governments, like those of Montana and Louisiana, which have greatly limited access to certain social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, either for minors or all users. Some researchers have alleged that social media is responsible for increases in anxiety and depression. “If this was childhood cancer or childhood car accidents, or if we had seen these significant changes anywhere else, we would all be losing our minds about this,” he told me.
The legislation is already facing legal challenges, as tech groups and libertarians balk at how involved the government will be in verifying users’ ages. But the governor told me he wasn’t worried. When I asked if he had any hesitations about the bills he said simply, “uh, no.”
This is the first in a series of Opinion Q. and A.’s exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics, and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew. This interview has been edited for quality and clarity.
Jane Coaston: Utah has passed legislation that would bar people under the age of 18 from having social media accounts without the explicit consent of a parent or guardian, create a social media curfew of sorts, and give Utah parents and guardians access to the children’s posts and private messages. Why this legislation, and why now?
Gov. Spencer Cox: There’s a couple of reasons. Look, we’ve talked to mental health professionals across the state and across the country. We’ve looked extensively at the research. We’ve done our homework on this one. We’ve spent time with parents and children, all across the state, and there is a general consensus and acknowledgment that social media and access to these devices is causing harm. Significant harm.
If you look at the increased rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm since about 2012, across the board but especially with young women, we have just seen exponential increases in those mental health concerns. Again, the research is telling us over and over and over again that it is not just correlated, but it’s being caused, at least in part, by the social media platforms.
[The C.D.C. found that in 2021, nearly three in five adolescent girls felt “persistent sadness” and one in three girls had seriously contemplated suicide. The rates of mental health issues reported has increased with every report since 2011.]
So we felt like we need to do something. If this was happening anywhere else, if this was childhood cancer or childhood car accidents, or if we had seen these significant changes anywhere else, we would, I think, all be losing our minds about this.
The second part of your question is, why now? And I think the better question is, why didn’t we do this four or five years ago? Now because it’s sooner than tomorrow.
Coaston: You talked about the problems that could be caused by social media, but it seems as if the problems of social media and young people, they could be amorphous enough to invite potentially endless legislation. So what kinds of results are you looking for? What would tell you or the Utah legislature, yes, this is working, or no, it is not working?
Cox: The biggest results would be that we would see a decline in the terrible tragedies of anxiety, depression and self-harm. Those are the most important numbers that we look at, and that we’ve been following very closely. Over time, we’re hoping to see a decline back to close to pre-2012, 2013 levels.
Coaston: Last April you shared an article by Jonathan Haidt on Twitter, titled online “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” and it’s about social media. And you said of the article, “if I could convince every elected official, every voter, every citizen to read one thing today, it would be this.” That leads me to think that your concerns about social media aren’t just about kids. Is that true?
Cox: That is absolutely true, yes.
Coaston: Is this about the types of platforms? Are these concerns about specific tech? Or something broader about social media, what these platforms mean now?
Cox: I think it’s all of those things. I do think it’s important though to separate them. And I think the answers to the problems that we’re facing are maybe different for the problem and the person.
Again, we have a longstanding tradition in our country of drawing lines around ages for brain development when it comes to certain activities. We don’t let kids smoke or drink or drive a car before certain ages, because we know the danger and the damage that is being done there, and the science will back that up.
If I could wave the magic wand and have all adults spend less time on these devices, social media platforms, I would love to be able to do that. But that isn’t something I could do. It’s not something I’m comfortable doing, and it’s not something that sits nicely within the general legal tradition of our country.
Coaston: Clearly parents could do this without the state getting involved. What are parents not doing that necessitates the state acting in their stead, or augmenting parents?
Cox: We talked to parents, including parents who are in this space. Parents who are psychiatrists, parents who deal with this every day. And what they’re saying is “we need help.” Even the parents who are the most engaged are desperate for some help, because of the other cultural forces that are just pushing this and making it so very difficult to deal with.
Just a couple of examples, right? One is the ability to have phones turn off or have these social media platforms disengaged at certain hours during the night. That’s something that parents can override, but setting that as a standard and helping them to understand how important this is again from a scientific standpoint, that sleep at that age with developing brains and having that time off from 10:30 at night until 6:30 in the morning, that that can make such a huge difference.
Coaston: There are still a lot of tensions within the conservative movement between a more libertarian viewpoint on, whether it’s social media or pretty much anything else, about protecting children and certain ideas about family.
Why do you think that there have been more conservatives, whether in Utah or elsewhere, who have been saying, look, libertarianism hasn’t led to what we wanted it to do. We have to step in, it’s time for the government to play a role in how parents parent.
[The Electronic Frontier Foundation opposed the legislation, arguing, “Utah’s bill is part of a wave of age verification laws that would make users less secure, and make internet access less private overall. EFF opposes laws that mandate age-verification requirements, and Utah’s S.B. 152 would be one of the worst we’ve seen.”]
Cox: Well, look, we’re not telling parents how to parent. The law empowers parents. It doesn’t tell parents what they have to do at all. Again, if they want their kids to be on social media at 4 in the morning, they have the ability to allow their kids to do that.
This is giving more tools to parents. So I will push back as vehemently as possible about that narrative, because it’s wrong. And that’s dishonest by the libertarians that are using that narrative that the state is trying to take over for parents. They’re lying to you about that, because that’s not what the law does and they know it, but they know that’s an argument they lose every time.
I come from that libertarian background and line of thinking. And it works great with adults. Save those arguments for the adults, but spare me the kids.
Coaston: So I think that Utah has taken a more expansive view with online restrictions on adult material, and now with social media. Are there any trade-offs you’re worried about? I know that you’ve heard from some of the tech lobbies, but as much as people talk about teen anxiety and depression, I’m also sure that lots of teens have found a lot of support on TikTok or social media when they’re in a tough home. Are there any concerns that you have about this legislation?
Cox: Uh, no.
Coaston: What other leaders in your party do you think have good ideas about social media? Who are you listening to and who are you reading?
Cox: We’ve mentioned Jonathan; Jean Twenge has been fantastic on this issue. She’s got her new book “Generations.” She’s been really important.
[Twenge’s 2017 book “iGen” argued that cellphones and social media were having an outsize — and negative — effect on the lives of teenagers and young adults.]
And these aren’t partisan people, these are on the research and the science side. We’re working with anybody that’s interested in this space, and we’ve had other governors who have reached out to us. I’m really interested in Montana, their decision to ban TikTok completely. That’s a step we have not taken. We did ban TikTok on state devices, and of course TikTok is subject to the social media legislation that we passed. But a complete ban on TikTok is one that we’re watching very closely. We have a year to implement this, and we’re working through that process now.
[Montana’s ban on TikTok would impose a $10,000-a-day fine on TikTok or app companies that make the app available within the state beginning on Jan. 1, 2024. TikTok has filed a lawsuit arguing that the ban violates the First Amendment and is also funding a lawsuit led by a group of the app’s users in the state.]
We knew that there would be some problem points that we would have to work through with the social media companies. And we don’t hate business. We want business to be able to thrive and succeed. But we also want people to be held accountable.
Coaston: Yeah, I’d be interested to think about those tweaks, because you mentioned that you would know that this was working if you saw rates of depression or rates of suicides going down. What would be the next step if you didn’t see the results that you wanted to see? Would there be a moment when you’d say that maybe age verification isn’t enough? Maybe it’s time to ban TikTok? Maybe it’s time to go past where you’ve gone right now?
Cox: It’s hard to answer that. It won’t even take effect until next year. So we’re a couple of years away from seeing the true impact of this, and a lot can change in a couple of years. What I really hope is that over the course of the next year or two, we have a Congress that is engaged here.
I really do think this is the one area where there is just such a broad agreement. The president in his State of the Union address has brought this up. I’ve had calls from members of Congress, senators on the left and the right, that are looking at this.
It’s because they’re real people and they’re parents, and they’re all … (laughs) they’re all dying with this too. And it’s not just that — kids understand it. It’s fun sometimes in the media to kind of posit this as like an old man shaking his fist at the clouds, versus kids these days.
I toured 29 schools in the past two months, and I asked the question, do you think social media is causing harm to your generation? They do. They know that this is causing harm, and they’re so often desperate for help.
I guess my point is, I hope that there will be a collective desire to try to solve this. I don’t know if ours is the one that’s going to solve it. I certainly hope so. We’ve put a lot of thought into it. But I’m not going to stand here and tell you what we did is perfect and it’s the right solution.
Coaston: All of your kids have grown up in the social media era. So obviously if you’re a little bit older, you might not have gotten on TikTok when you were in eighth grade. Or a little younger, this might have just been what you grew up with. How have their experiences differed? Is there anything that you would have done differently? What has your experience of parenting kids in the social media age been like?
Cox: Yeah. I will say it has been very different across that gap. My oldest, he just graduated from college. My youngest is a sophomore in high school. With my oldest, social media was there, but it was just never that big of a deal. Didn’t spend much time on it. Never got addicted to it. We certainly learned as we went along, and to the point now where my daughter does not have social media. She’s the only one among her friends who does not have social media.
But they share videos with her, and we’re constantly having to try to figure out how long has she been on her phone, and your phone doesn’t go in your bedroom at night. We’ve set those rules. And it is a constant battle, even though she doesn’t have social media accounts.
She’s pushed back hard. That is a battle that we have with her that we did not have with our older kids. My wife will tell you the same thing, that if we had to do it all over again, we would have waited much longer to give our kids a smart device.
It’s not just the social media, but it’s the time spent on that device away from other things. Every hour spent on that device is an hour not spent face to face or engaging or doing something else.
Coaston: How has this shifted your own view and use of social media? Because I think it’s kind of funny to be having this conversation. I mentioned that Atlantic article that you recommended, but you recommended it on social media.
Cox: I did.
Coaston: I think that there’s been a lot of conversation about the threats of social media that we’re having on social media, which is kind of ironic to me. Has it changed how you think about using social media? How often you’re using social media? Your own use of these platforms?
Cox: So let me assure you that I am very self-aware.
I recognize the irony, and this is something that I share with young people as well. Social media, it has positives as well. Again, we could theoretically just ban all social media for kids under the age of 18. That’s not what I wanted. I want the ability for people to connect on social media, in the ways that we originally used social media for. The kind of the good parts of social media, the pieces that we all thought were going to help make our country a better place.
Sadly that has not happened. And so, I am trying to take some of that advice. I have significantly changed the way I use Twitter. I engage a little less. And this is, this is the sad part too. I mean, I used to love being able to engage with people. I admitted this — I created a burner account. Not to go on and, you know, say great things about Governor Cox, or anything like that. The purpose of my burner account is it just follows a select group. Because I do get a lot of my media intakes, the reporters, the news that I get. I curate that through social media and through Twitter, and that’s really important for me.
Coaston: What does this mean for social media in Utah for everyone? You mentioned a little bit your increasing concerns, but I think that there are lots of people who routinely describe problems with social media, adults who are saying things like, they’re on it too much, it’s stressful, it’s bad. It’s making our discourse worse. Do you think that’s something that — obviously what adults do is a very different area — but is that something that could potentially lead to some sort of legislation in the future?
Cox: I don’t know if we can legislate that piece. Again, I think this is where the hard work of culture changing and of being a patriotic American actually takes place. You’re going to hear me talk a lot more about this over the course of the next year.
I’m really focused on how to disagree better and the toxicity of this moment, and how we can, as political leaders, but as just neighbors, as human beings. I don’t pretend like I’m going to be able to solve that. We have a problem as a country, and it is getting worse, and these social media platforms undoubtedly are designed to make it worse, right? I’m hoping I can convince more and more adults to stop making those poor decisions. But I don’t know that there’s a significant piece of legislation to allow that to happen. We may learn some things from these kids’ accounts that are helpful. Maybe some things around addictive algorithms and giving people the ability to turn those off.
But I don’t know that there’s an appetite for that. I don’t know if I have an appetite for that either. I’m much more of a, when it comes to adults, kind of, you know, let people decide and make those choices, and try to show them the better way.