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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

What to know about a Florida bill banning kids under 16 from social media

Close-up of popular social media app icons, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube, in that order, displayed on smartphone screen with orange wallpaper. Device is on white background.
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The Florida House is poised to pass a bill aimed at preventing children under age 16 from using social media, as the tech industry warns the measure could be unconstitutional and would trample on parents' rights.

The Florida House passed a bill in January banning kids under 16 from making social media accounts. Supporters say the measure would protect children from harm on social media platforms, while opponents say it would infringe on First Amendment rights.

The Florida House passed a bill in January requiring social media companies to ban accounts belonging to kids under 16. A similar bill is currently in the Florida Senate.

Tech companies say the measure is unconstitutional, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed concern over the bill’s “breadth.”

Rep. Tyler Sirois, the House bill’s co-sponsor, and Aaron Mackey with the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke about the measure Friday with Tom Hudson on The Florida Roundup.

Sirois explained why he believes his bill doesn’t violate First Amendment rights.

“This bill is not about the content that is on these platforms. This bill is based on addictive features, the things that are intentionally designed to produce basically a dopamine hit in our kids,” Sirois said. Some examples he gave of addictive features include auto scroll, autoplay and push notifications.

“There are things that are being designed and intentionally deployed to modify the way that our kids behave, to take advantage of child development and capturing their and holding their attention.”

Mackey, however, disagreed with Sirois’ point about the bill’s constitutionality.

“That's like saying a bill that bans access to movie theaters for anyone under 16 or bans access to bookstores for anyone under 16 is not about the content of the movies or the books. This is fundamentally about the content, and those facial designs of the law, courts will easily see past that,” Mackey said.

He also spoke on the cultural consequences of banning kids from social platforms.

“… fundamentally, what this does is it deprives children of access to probably the most diverse platform for users to engage in speech and to learn about the world around us,” Mackey said.

Sirois said his measure isn’t about whether social media is good or bad, but protecting kids from harm.

“We're seeing soaring suicide rates, we're seeing increased incidence of self-harm, hospital admissions for self-harm are increasing. And we understand, based on testimony that we received here in Tallahassee, that on our present course, it's going to be normal for American girls to suffer from depression," Sirois explained. "So that is something that I find alarming, and it doesn't have to be that way. And all of the data that we have points to social media as being a main contributor.”

Opting out of features on social platforms, Sirois added, wouldn’t be enough either. He pointed to parents who aren’t tech-savvy and young children who don’t understand how their personal data will be used.

“So I think that what we're doing here is recognizing that the magnitude of this problem, and the harm that these platforms are doing to our youth, is simply beyond a lot of parents’ ability, a lot of families’ ability to be able to step in and handle it,” Sirois said.

“… fundamentally, what this does is it deprives children of access to probably the most diverse platform for users to engage in speech and to learn about the world around us.”
Aaron Mackey

If the House bill becomes law, Florida’s attorney general would be empowered to “pursue unfair and deceptive trade practices against companies that are violating the law,” according to Sirois. Parents could sue a social media platform if it unlawfully enrolls a minor.

The bill would also require platforms to verify someone’s age using personal information like a driver’s license or birth certificate. Mackey said all users would have to undergo the same process.

“So it affects not just children, but all adults, and the Supreme Court and federal courts across the country have routinely held that this type of scheme that requires everyone to pass through an age verification gate is unconstitutional, because you can't put those types of restrictions on adults and children's ability to access the internet,” Mackey said.

He noted other ways Florida can protect children without, as he said, violating the First Amendment, like implementing third-party software for parents to filter and monitor their kids’ devices.

“… there are legitimate concerns here and people, children are being harmed,” Mackey added. “The question is, is this going to actually help them? And will it actually be enforced?”

As WUSF’s digital news producer, I strive to serve others by sharing stories on our online platforms.