Florida lawmakers pass a revised crackdown on kids using social media

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Child using social media on a smart phone. by Prostock-Studio via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — With one lawmaker likening social media to a “dark alley,” the Florida House on Wednesday gave final approval to a bill that seeks to keep children off social media platforms.

The House voted 109-4 to approve the bill (HB 3), which passed the Senate on Monday. It will go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to sign it after vetoing an earlier version.

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, made cracking down on social media perhaps the highest-profile issue of this year’s legislative session. He contends that social media use harms children’s mental health and can lead to sexual predators communicating with minors.

“This is something that I believe will save the current generation and generations to come if we’re successful,” Renner said after the bill passed.

Rep. Tyler Sirois, a Merritt Island Republican who helped sponsor the bill, said that if social media “is the new town square, then God help us.”

“For our children, social media is no town square,” Sirois said. “It is a dark alley.”

The bill, in part, would prevent children under age 16 from opening social-media accounts — though it would allow parents to give consent for 14- and 15-year-olds to have accounts. Children under 14 could not open accounts.

Tech-industry and free-speech groups have already signaled that the bill is likely to face a First Amendment court challenge.

“Outright banning minors from social media sites does not address the potential harm they may encounter on social media sites but instead prohibits them from sharing and engaging in constitutionally protected speech,” Katie Blankenship, director of the free-speech group PEN America Florida, said in a statement this week. “We know social media sites can present significant risks to minors, but the state’s response to such risks should be tailored to minimize harm, not passing measures that violate Floridans’ constitutional rights.”

Opponents have pointed to courts blocking similar laws passed in other states.

“I don’t think we should spend more public dollars on lawsuits in this state where we know these bills are inherently unconstitutional,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said.

Bill supporters, however, contend the measure targets “addictive” features of social-media platforms, not content, making it better able to withstand constitutional challenges.

“We’re talking about products that are not only addictive, these products are deliberately designed to be addictive,” said Rep. Mike Beltran, a Riverview Republican who is an attorney. “There’s a huge difference between the two of those.”

Rep. Michele Rayner, a St. Petersburg Democrat who has helped sponsor the bill, said she believes “we are in crisis” with social media.

“Maybe, this may not be the bill, and we got to come back next year and the year after, but at least we are acting,” Rayner, an attorney, said. “At least we are moving the needle. At least we are having a conversation.”

Along with Eskamani, dissenting votes were cast by Rep. Daryl Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, and Rep. Felicia Robinson, D-Miami Gardens.

DeSantis on Friday vetoed the earlier version (HB 1) after raising concerns about constitutional issues and infringement on parental rights. But he negotiated with Renner on the plan that passed Wednesday.

A significant change is that the revised plan would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to open accounts with parental consent. The earlier version would have prevented 14- and 15-year-olds from creating accounts without a parental-consent option.

The bill does not name social-media platforms that would be affected. But it includes a definition of such platforms, with criteria related to such things as algorithms, “addictive features” and allowing users to view the content or activities of other users.

The earlier version would have directed age-verification requirements for platforms. Those requirements also would have affected adults creating accounts.

But the revamped plan does not include the requirements. As an alternative, supporters hope to ensure compliance by opening social-media platforms to lawsuits for violations of the age restrictions. That would include lawsuits filed by the state attorney general and lawsuits filed on behalf of minors.

“We’re putting the onus here on the companies,” Sirois said.

Like the earlier version, the bill would require age verification to try to prevent minors under age 18 from having access to online pornographic sites.

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