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

Florida teens point out the good and bad of social media as lawmakers consider limits

Young entrepreneurs and activists are worried about a proposal to ban social media for kids under 16 — even with consent of their parents. The state Senate may still make further changes to the bill.

During the height of the pandemic, 14-year-old Taylor Thigpen started his business, PlantKingusa, with $5, a dream, and an Instagram page.

His love for horticulture and interest in sustainability led him to create his own plant nursery to ship out plants across the country. Growing up in Green Cove Springs, south of Jacksonville, in a low-income, single-parent household gave him the motivation to become financially independent at a young age.

Today, Thigpen, now an 18-year-old senior at St. Johns Country Day School, ships thousands of plants across all 50 states and uses his business to help him pay for college. It all wouldn’t have been possible without social media marketing, he said.

“The use of social media allowed me to reach a large market of people that I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise,” Thigpen said. “I really only got noticed because I was able to use apps like Facebook and Instagram to promote my story and to promote my products.”

Thigpen and other young entrepreneurs and activists are worried about a Florida proposal to ban social media for all minors under 16 — even with consent of their parents.

“It has the potential to do more harm than good to youth by taking away a vital resource,” Thigpen said. “Youth who come from low-income families can use … social media to connect with mental health resources. Or, if they’re suffering from food insecurity, they can use it to find resources like food banks or soup kitchens.”

The bill (CS/HB1)passed the House last month and was expected to clear the Senate on Wednesday. The Senate may still make further changes to the bill before voting.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has championed parents’ choices about how to raise their own children, said last month that he has legal concerns about the bill.

“To say that someone that is 15 just cannot have it no matter what, even if the parent consents, that may create some legal issues," he said at a news conference Jan. 26. “I want to empower parents, I want to give parents tools to be able to do this, so I just think you have to be smart with how you do it."

The bill is a top priority for the House speaker, Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast. It would prohibit in Florida anyone under 16 years old as account holders of any social media platform. It instructs social media companies to implement age-verification technology to determine the user’s age and further instructs all current accounts of minors under 16 be deleted.

An amendmentexpected to be discussed would require social media platforms to offer anonymous age-verification methods. The platforms also could offer “standard” age-verification methods. The bill has called for using “reasonable” verification methods, but that has faced criticism over privacy concerns.

Thigpen is not alone using social media for good reasons. Anjani Sharma, a 17-year-old senior at West Shore High School, started the nonprofit, Minds Without B0rders, while she was a freshman at 14. The goal of the organization was to provide mental health resources to youth.

Sharma saw a need after she noticed that the mental health curriculum at her school was not connecting with students.

Minds Without Borders gives students a platform to talk with each other about their own mental issues and also work together to propose policy changes to their representatives. It has chapters across the U.S. as well as overseas. Sharma credits social media with allowing her to grow it very fast.

“We would post about mental health awareness on our platforms or educate people with Reels and TikToks,” Sharma said. “We would have other youth reach out to us through social media (direct messages) asking how they can get involved and later opening their own chapters at their own schools. We’ve done so much good work simply by connecting to other kids through our platforms.”

Sharma noted the Florida proposal was created amid concerns about the negative effects of social media on minors’ mental health. She acknowledged that social media can contribute to mental health issues but also sees it as a resource that can combat some of the same issues.

“The way this bill is written is not going to just make these issues go away,” Sharma said. “Social media helps them understand mental health issues, or connect with friends and find a community, or even find Minds Without B0rders to give them mental health resources.”

Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, one of the sponsors for the House bill, said in an interview that the Legislature was placing restrictions on activities that can harm youth. He compared it to age restrictions for driving or alcohol.

“Legislatures take steps to establish parameters for keeping children safe. I don’t see this bill being a conversation on whether or not social media is good or bad,” Sirois said. “What we’re saying with this legislation is that there are features that are harmful and addictive and we need to put up guardrails to keep our children safe.”

Rep. Fiona McFarland, R–Sarasota, who also sponsored the House bill, said the move was necessary given the risks of social media.

McFarland said classroom teachers have expressed concerns about social media’s effects on children, and law enforcement officers were worried about cyberbullying, threats or even human trafficking that can occur.

“Parents are telling us they need help. They have kids that are having accounts that they can’t keep up with or fake parallel accounts that they don't know about,” McFarland said. “It’s a world that they’re really struggling to navigate as they look at their teens being frenzied and worried for fear of missing out. Parents are asking for our help, too.”

In Washington, lawmakers are considering federal legislation that would provide parents with tools to supervise their kids’ use of social media and restrict access to minors’ personal data. During a fiery hearing last month, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X and other social media companies heard testimony from kids and parents who said social media can be dangerous, even deadly. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to parents and children who attended the congressional hearing.

The Florida bill passed the House 106-13, but there are questions whether such a new law would survive legal challenges. NetChoice, a trade association of technology companies that advocates for free expression on the internet, opposes the bill.

The association’s members include Meta, X, TikTok and Snapchat. It has filed lawsuits against similar legislation in Arkansas, Ohio and Utah. Federal courts currently have blocked the laws in Arkansas and Ohio over First Amendment concerns.

NetChoice’s top lawyer, Carl Szabo, said Florida’s bill violates the First Amendment rights of minors and discriminates against social media platforms but wouldn’t apply to email providers, streaming services, photo-editing applications, interactive gaming, news sites or other popular digital services.

“Time and time again the supreme courts have come on the side of minors stating that their First Amendment rights supersede even the restrictions put on them by a school administrator,” Szabo said. “There is no age limit in the First Amendment. An unconstitutional law will protect zero children.”

Samya Jones, 15, of Gainesville said she regularly sees inappropriate material on social media and supports the Florida proposal.

“[On social media], I’ve seen killing, drugs, guns, sex, all of that,” Jones said. “Younger children get a hold of social media and they start thinking that it’s a great influence. Some of them end up dead, killed or in gangs.”

Kalsi Hennessey, another 15-year-old at Gainesville High, said lots of her friends don’t have a phone plan on their phone, so social media is the only way for them to talk and interact with friends and keep up to date with what’s happening.

“I would definitely not be able to talk to a lot of my friends,” Hennessey said. “Talking to people is also a way of social development. If they took away that, then kids are going to have a hard time being social and developing well in that department.”

Maxx Fenning, 21, a business administration senior at the University of Florida, runs an organization, Prism, that he founded as a 17-year-old in high school. The nonprofit provides education and resources for the LGBTQ+ community. Fenning said kids under 16 may not have told their parents about their sexuality, may lack transportation to attend in-person support groups and rely on social media for emotional support.

“There have been so many instances on our social platforms of young people coming forward and voicing concerns such as being terrified to come out to their parents or knowing how to navigate conversations surrounding their gender or sexuality,” Fenning said. “We were able to encourage and give guidance to these youth. It was only possible because they knew these platforms were a safe space they could confide in.”

Fenning said the Florida bill will further diminish resources for LGBTQ+ minors by limiting the reach of his organization.

“There is also so much good social media does,” he said. “For all of its possible harms, it is also a critical access point for providing resources – mental health resources – to young people. Something that outright wipes out their access to those platforms would be devastating to young people who oftentimes use it as a lifeline to access resources, especially when they’re unable to get support from their parents.”

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at erina.anwar@ufl.edu. You can donate to support our students here.

Erina Anwar/Fresh Take Florida