Florida Bans Children From Social Media

The point of the law isn't to ban content per se — it's to regulate how much of it is being exposed to children.

MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 05: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference on February 05, 2024 in Miami Beach, Florida. Among other topics, he addressed the upcoming influx of spring breakers and assured the public that law enforcement officials and resources were available to maintain order if needed. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States (unless its Chinese owner divests from the company) is currently making its way through the Senate.

It’s still not clear what’s going to happen to that bill. It overwhelmingly passed in the House by hundreds of votes, but it appears to be significantly less popular in the upper chamber. That’s true, in no small part, because the most intense lobbying campaign in recent memory is underway to kill the legislation. A lot of very powerful interests don’t want to see this ban pass.

That’s not to say there aren’t reasonable arguments on both sides of the issue. On one hand, TikTok is unquestionably toxic for both kids and adults. Pretty much everyone who uses TikTok very quickly drops several IQ points and learns how to twerk — at least in the U.S., where the algorithm is fine-tuned for that express purpose. It’s also a spy app under the control of a hostile foreign power that’s transmitting all sorts of data we don’t know about. These are serious problems.

On the other hand, there are obviously legitimate concerns about empowering the U.S. government to remove entire platforms from the Internet. Even though the bill, as it’s written, only applies to platforms that are “controlled” by foreign entities, you have to wonder how far that limitation can be stretched. We all just lived through several years of hysteria about Russian “control” of the White House. And every other significant new power that the government has been given to combat foreign enemies has eventually been used against the government’s domestic political opponents. So it’s hard to be reassured that, given this vast new authority to ban the most popular social media app on the planet, that the government wouldn’t at least try to ban, say, Twitter — which is far more inconvenient for them.

WATCH: The Matt Walsh Show

That’s why legislation that was just signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is so significant. It hasn’t gotten much attention, but it should, because it addresses the legitimate concerns about apps like TikTok, without granting the government any kind of sweeping new, unprecedented powers to regulate the lives of American citizens. Instead, it regulates the behavior of children in a manner that’s consistent with all sorts of other regulations that already apply to minors. Watch:

So generally speaking, under this bill, children under the age of 14 can’t have social media accounts. And 14 and 15-year-olds will need permission from their parents to have a social media account. The bill is set to take effect at the beginning of next year, although as you heard, there are undoubtedly going to be legal challenges on First Amendment grounds. Several months ago, a federal judge blocked a similar law in Arkansas, which banned minors from creating social media accounts without parental consent.

But the Florida bill is meaningfully different from the legislation that was struck down in Arkansas. It’s important to get into the specifics, because as we’ve learned, the media will misrepresent the substance of every Florida bill they possibly can. So here are the details. 

This Florida bill is not a blanket ban on any particular app. Instead, it’s focused on banning apps that have particular features which are designed to keep children on the app at all times. In order to fall under this ban, according to the text of the legislation, the app must have one of the following “addictive features”: (1) Infinite scrolling, which the bill defines as “continuously loading content, or content that loads as the user scrolls down the page without the need to open a separate page”; (2) Push notifications or alerts “to inform a user about specific activities or events related to the user’s account”; or (3) “Auto-play video or video that begins to play without the user first clicking on the video or on a play button for that video.”

There are a couple of other features that are singled out in the bill, but those are the big ones. Live-streaming is also banned.

In other words, TikTok can create a version of its app for minors that complies with these restrictions, and it wouldn’t be banned. The point of the law isn’t to ban content per se — it’s to regulate how much of it is being exposed to children. That’s a significant distinction, because there’s a lot of evidence that these addictive features rewire the brains of children. The journal World Psychiatry recently published an analysis which found that, 

The primary hypothesis on how the Internet affects our attentional capacities is through hyperlinks, notifications, and prompts providing a limitless stream of different forms of digital media, thus encouraging us to interact with multiple inputs simultaneously.

These are the kind of notifications that are specifically banned in the Florida bill. And there’s more research along these lines. Researchers at UNC, for example, found that, 

…checking social media repeatedly among young teens ages 12 to 13 may be associated with changes in how their brains develop over a three-year period.

In their analysis, which was published in JAMA Pediatrics, the UNC researchers specifically determined that, 

The brains of adolescents who checked social media often – more than 15 times per day, became more sensitive to social feedback.

There’s much more research on this point, but intuitively, we all know this is true. The social media companies know it too, which is why they have these kinds of features. Their goal is to rewire children’s brains so that they seek positive social feedback from apps, instead of people. And that’s concerning because, when their brains are developing, children are especially prone to falling into addictive behaviors that, once learned, can affect them for the rest of their lives.

We are mentally and emotionally deforming entire generations of children, who do not know how to interact with the world, or pay attention to it, unless it is filtered through a tiny screen. This isn’t just concerning, it’s a crisis. It is impacting the future of our civilization. If we could look into a crystal ball and see what the world will look like 100 years from now because of this, it would probably terrify us so much that we would call for the ban of every social media company and every smartphone in existence. That’s how bad it’s going to get. I’m not saying we should ban all of those things. I’m simply saying that horrors beyond our comprehension await us, as we condition billions of people to be totally dependent — physically, mentally, emotionally — on a little screen.

And this is why we need to protect children in particular. We already protect them from all kinds of other toxic influences. We don’t allow children to, say, gamble, smoke, or drink alcohol. We also already regulate how companies can engage with children on the Internet.

There’s something called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, for example. Among other things, that law requires that websites get parental consent before they allow children to post photos, videos, or audio recordings of themselves or any other identifying personal information. This law is the reason why major social media platforms, including Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook already prohibit children under the age of 13 from using their platforms.

What Florida’s law does is slightly expand limitations like this to social media platforms that are targeting young children.

In response to the Florida law, one of the most common counter arguments you’ll hear is that children will just circumvent the ban, as they’ve already circumvented the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. All kids have to do right now is provide a fake birthdate, and they can make an Instagram account. But all this tells us is that the feds aren’t concerned with enforcing the law. Florida is taking a different approach. And we’ve already seen that, when states actually want to enforce these laws, they can get results. We saw that after various states passed laws requiring pornography websites to verify that their users aren’t minors. Some users found a way around the ban by routing their web traffic to other states using a VPN service. Still, these services cost money on a monthly basis. They’re not the easiest things for a 13-year-old to sign up for, at least not in most situations. That’s why traffic to these pornography websites went down significantly, even though it was technically possible to break the law and circumvent the restriction.

The other common counter argument you’ll hear is that parents should be in charge of policing this sort of thing, not the government. And indeed, that’s one of the major arguments that came up in Florida. It’s why DeSantis vetoed another version of the legislation, which would’ve prevented 14-year-olds from accessing these apps, even with parental consent. The final bill was a kind of compromise position, which addressed the concerns of the “parental rights” dissenters.

But the truth is that, although parents should be the ones policing their children’s social media use, many parents don’t. It’s also true that parents should stop their kids from drinking alcohol or using tobacco products, but they don’t all do that either. That’s why we still have laws against those things. And most people don’t think those laws should be repealed, for good reason.

What this means is that Florida, without much fanfare, has found a solution to the TikTok debate that has dominated Congress for the past several weeks. All we have to do is what we’ve done before. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

We don’t have to open the door to future government bans of Twitter or any other social media platform. We just need to do something that’s fallen out of favor recently, which is to protect children from strangers on the Internet who want to abuse them.

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