The Florida Legislature passes a bill banning children 15 and under from having some social media accounts

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Kids and social media by diego_cervo via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers Thursday gave final approval to a bill that seeks to keep children under age 16 off social-media platforms, as Gov. Ron DeSantis continued to raise concerns about the measure.

The House voted 108-7 to pass the bill (HB 1), which has been a priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast. That came after the Senate voted 23-14 earlier in the day to approve the measure.

Renner told lawmakers after the House vote that the bill “will protect children in a dramatic way.” He and other bill supporters say social media harms children’s mental health and exposes them to sexual predators.

“These (social media) companies know what they are doing is wrong,” House bill sponsor Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, said. “They have not acted. We will.”

But opponents argue parents should decide whether children use social media and that the bill would be unconstitutional. The bill now will go to DeSantis, who raised concerns Thursday about parental rights and pointed to the bill affecting 14- and 15-year-olds.

“I think, net, it’s harmful for them to be on some of those platforms that have certain functionality that is addictive. I agree with that,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Lake Buena Vista. “But I also believe that parents need to have a role in this.”

DeSantis later added, “I don’t think it (the bill) is there yet. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get there in a way that, I think, answers the concerns that a lot of folks have. Because I do think parents are concerned about social media and what goes on there. And I do think they think it’s a problem. But I also think that for people that are in high school, it’s not as simple. I think you’ve got to have some parent involvement.”

Seven Democrats — LaVon Bracy Davis of Ocoee, Daryl Campbell of Fort Lauderdale, Anna Eskamani of Orlando, Ashley Gantt of Miami, Dianne Hart of Tampa, Angie Nixon of Jacksonville and Felicia Robinson of Miami Gardens — voted against the bill in the House.

In the Senate, Democrats Rosalind Osgood of Fort Lauderdale and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg joined 21 Republicans in voting for the bill. Republicans Bryan Avila of Miami Springs, Jennifer Bradley of Fleming Island, Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, Jonathan Martin of Fort Myers and Jay Trumbull of Panama City joined nine Democrats in opposing it.

The bill would prevent children under 16 from creating accounts on at least some social media platforms; require platforms to terminate existing accounts that they know or have “reason to believe” are held by minors younger than 16; and allow parents to request that minors’ accounts be terminated.

The bill includes criteria for determining which platforms would be subject to the restrictions. The criteria would include issues related to algorithms, “addictive features” and allowing users to view the content or activities of other users.

Also, it would require platforms to use age verification before accounts are created, with the verifications also affecting adults.

Under changes made this week, social media platforms would be required to offer anonymous age-verification methods to potential users. The platforms also could offer what are described as “standard” age-verification methods. If both methods are offered, potential users would be able to choose the method.

Grall and Sirois said the bill focuses on platform features, rather than content, to try to help it withstand court challenges. The bill does not list specific platforms that would be affected.

“This bill is not about speech,” Sirois said. “This bill is not about content. This bill is focused on the features.”

But opponents said courts would rule that the bill is unconstitutional, as judges have blocked similar laws in other states. Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Sunny Isles Beach, described it as taking a “miracle” for the bill to be found constitutional.

“This will be overturned in a court of law, even by those (judges) at the state level appointed by the governor and even those at the federal level appointed by President Trump,” said Pizzo, an attorney.

Tech industry groups, such as the Computer & Communications Industry Association, have signaled the bill likely would face a court challenge if signed by DeSantis.

“Although CCIA (the association) shares the concerns of lawmakers regarding the safety of children and teens online, HB 1 is not adequately tailored to this objective,” Khara Boender, state policy director for the association, said in a statement Wednesday. “It puts young Floridians at risk by restricting their First Amendment right to access information and forcing companies to collect additional sensitive data on internet users. We encourage Florida lawmakers to resist following the path of other states in enacting a law with significant constitutional concerns that risks facing similar legal challenges.”

Much of the debate Thursday in the Senate focused on parental rights, with opponents describing the bill as government “overreach.”

“Parenting is very difficult, but that doesn’t mean that the government needs to step in,” Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said.

But supporters dispute that it is a parental rights issue.

“If you believe that these platforms are a toxic brew of sexual exploitation, of manipulation, of deception and are corrosive to our children’s mental health, there can be no parental consent,” Sirois said.

While social media restrictions have dominated the debate, the bill also includes requiring age verification to try to prevent minors under age 18 from having access to online pornographic sites.

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