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Colorado lawmakers take aim at social media apps, hoping to curb teens’ late-night habits

By Nick Coltrain, The Denver Post
Published: February 25, 2024, 6:22am

DENVER — Annie Valentina Castanon knows the endless scroll of social media well — one short video on an app like Instagram or TikTok turns into another, she said, and soon a minute turns into hours.

The quick rush from flashy entertainment gives way to anxiety as she worries about losing time that should have been spent on her Advanced Placement classes. And then depression sets in over the sense that she’s setting her future self up for failure.

The senior at DSST: Montview High School in Denver has joined a push at the Colorado Capitol to treat youth overuse of social media as an emerging public health crisis in the country. Lawmakers have introduced two bills that would charge state policymakers and the social media giants with new responsibilities — such as requiring pop-up warnings late at night that urge heavy users younger than 18 to close the app.

Legislators will soon wade into a public debate over constitutional rights, consumer protections, parental responsibility and quickly evolving technologies whose owners are themselves trying to adapt to evolving research on youth wellness. Some social media platforms have begun adding time limits or alerts on their own.

Valentina Castanon, 17, helped spur a bipartisan bill, titled “Healthier Social Media Use by Youth,” through her work with the Colorado Youth Congress, a leadership organization. HB24-1136 would require the Colorado Department of Education to create a resource bank for educators and parents about social media’s effects on youth mental health.

It would also require pop-up warnings when young users who have been on a social media app for more than an hour on a given day open it after 10 p.m. The pop-up would reappear again after 30 minutes of use, then after another 15 minutes, and finally every five minutes the user remains on it. The bill is set for its first committee hearing on Thursday.

The teen was hopeful the bill would make a dent in teens’ overuse of social media but said its passage wouldn’t be enough on its own.

“This bill will help a lot, but it won’t be same unless everyone works together,” Valentina Castanon said. “It’s not just the lawmakers passing this bill, it’s also the parents getting involved and saying, ‘Don’t get too into this technology.’ “

The other bill, introduced last week, is an accountability measure that also aims to reduce the apps’ negative impacts on young users. SB24-158 would establish age-verification requirements for social media companies. It also would require them to ban users who promote or sell illicit substances or firearms in violation of state and federal laws, or who engage in sex trafficking of juveniles or possession or distribution of sexually explicit material.

The bill would require app makers to provide tools to parents and guardians of users under 18 so they can regulate how the youth uses the social media platform. The companies also would have to provide those tools to users they know, or should reasonably know, are underage.

The companies would be required to submit annual reports to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, and the bill tasks that office with enforcing provisions under the state’s consumer protection act.

“We clearly have an escalating problem,” sponsor says

Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat sponsoring the bill aimed at reducing youth social media use, called it a “very modest proposal” to educate parents and children about the harms of overuse.

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“We clearly have an escalating problem with kids and their mental health,” Amabile said. “Social media is a part of that. It’s not the whole story, but it is a part of it.”

A recent report by the U.S. surgeon general found children who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. The average teenager spends 3.5 hours a day on social media, it says.

The report acknowledges gaps in understanding the mental health effects of social media but also notes that researchers “cannot conclude it is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.”

Absent federal action, the individual states have taken different tacks to address the use of social media. Montana tried to ban TikTok outright last year, though that attempt — largely motivated by the app’s Chinese ownership and data privacy concerns — is stuck in the courts, according to Reuters. Utah passed a sweeping set of regulations last year that require age verification and consent from a guardian for a child to create a social media account, limit hours of access and allow individuals to sue the companies.

That state also sued TikTok in October, alleging the company “illegally baits children into addictive and unhealthy use” and “blatantly misrepresents the app’s safety.”

Colorado House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, a Colorado Springs Republican who is another prime sponsor on the bill to limit late-night use and expand education, described the effort as a parent-focused approach to navigating the murky waters of social media.

She said there are ongoing conversations about the pop-up provision, in particular, to determine if it’s appropriate for state regulations and if the legislation uses specific-enough definitions. She also noted that the industry has filed lawsuits to challenge other states’ attempts to regulate social media — a challenge Colorado might need to navigate.

“Giving parents more of an education and the resources to make sure we are engaged in protecting our kids — for me, that’s what this bill is really about,” Pugliese said.

Jake Williams, the CEO of Healthier Colorado, a nonprofit advocacy group, called the bill’s education-first approach unique, saying it’s grounded in public health principles.

The country didn’t outright ban tobacco, for example, but launched educational campaigns about its dangers. He highlighted how social media use can eat into youths’ sleep schedules and how it can increase social pressures.

But the effects are not all necessarily bad, he said, pointing to ways social media can provide valuable community support for marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ youths.

“Social media is not going away,” Williams said. “It is going to be with us for a very long time. So we’re asking: What’s the common-sense way to mitigate the harms that we know are posed to youth when they use these platforms?”

Seeking “a high-accountability model” for companies

Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat sponsoring the bill to establish a stronger framework around social media companies, characterized the goal of his bill bluntly: “We’re trying to come up with a high-accountability model for the companies themselves.”

“They’re making billions of dollars off our kids,” Hansen said. “They should be accountable for this type of access and problems that are being created on the platforms.”

The bill would give the attorney general the authority to enforce a slew of new provisions under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. It also stands out from efforts in other states by putting the weight of the state behind enforcement, rather than creating a system that allows individuals to sue.

But social media companies worry about navigating different sets of regulations across state lines.

“Parents want to be involved in their (teens’) online lives, and they need simple ways to oversee the many apps their teens use,” Meta spokesperson Rachel Holland said in a statement. Meta is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. “However, U.S. states are passing a patchwork of laws with different requirements to use certain apps. That’s why we support federal legislation that requires app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps.”

Several social media owners have taken steps to address youth social media use, according to Technet, a tech industry advocacy group. Meta, for example, recently launched an Instagram function that alerts teens when they’ve spent more than 10 minutes on the app late at night. TikTok likewise announced a 60-minute screen time limit last year aimed at young people, though users 13 and older can extend it on their own.

The legislative efforts would mandate use of such guardrails. Williams, of Healthier Colorado, was skeptical many people use the voluntary protections offered by the platforms.

Hansen said he wanted to make the bill workable for the companies, but without sacrificing accountability in instances where they effectively serve as “a DoorDash for drugs or guns.” According to Hansen, some social media apps can serve as black markets to connect buyers with sellers of weapons and illicit substances.

“We’re not seeing significant action at the federal level,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk, there have been hearings, there have been mea culpas from the social media executives. But we’re not seeing the change that we need for our kids.”

Hansen said the movement to crack down needs to start somewhere. Several European countries already have stricter guardrails for youths’ social media use, he said.

Technet is still reviewing legislators’ proposals. Ruthie Barko, the group’s executive director for Colorado, praised their deliberative approach in a rapidly changing landscape. But she cited general concerns with regulations that may infringe on youths’ First Amendment rights to freely associate and access information available to older people.

Barko also cautioned against rules that cast too wide of a net and stray from the specific harms policymakers are trying to address, especially given how fast the technology is changing.

“All of this must be approached with safety and health at the top of mind,” Barko said in an interview.

The lawmakers may also hit speed bumps with the governor’s office.

“At the end of the day, the government can’t parent kids,” Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said in a recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s really up to the responsibility of parents to step up. And I think it’s, in many ways, an educational effort for outreach to parents. Many parents don’t understand the full threat of different social media for their kids.”

His office reiterated that position in a statement to The Denver Post that encouraged the bills’ sponsors to weigh factors including First Amendment rights, the restrictions’ technical feasibility, consumer experience and innovation by technology companies.

“The governor believes in a free and open internet and believes that decisions about how a child interacts with social media should remain with parents, not the government,” Polis spokesperson Shelby Wieman said. “A free and open internet is a fundamental driver of innovation. He is supportive of empowering parents with tools and resources in this area and will monitor these bills as they move through the legislative process.”