A Florida Senate panel advances a bill to prohibit kids under the age of 16 from having social media accounts — despite First Amendment warnings

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Social media apps on an iPhone. Illustration by hapabapa via iStock for WMNF News.

By Jim Saunders ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Florida senators Monday evening moved forward with a proposal to try to prevent minors under age 16 from using social media, as lawmakers take on tech platforms that they say harm children.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7-2 to approve a bill (SB 1788) that is similar to a measure (HB 1) that passed the House last month and is a priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

While supporters described social media as harmful to children’s mental health, they continued to face questions about the constitutionality of the proposal, which, in part, would prevent minors under 16 from creating social media accounts. Critics contend it would violate First Amendment rights.

Senate sponsor Erin Grall, a Vero Beach Republican who is an attorney, tried to stress Monday that the proposal is not about the content on platforms but about features that, in part, are addictive to minors.

“We have tried to be as narrow as possible in really looking at the features, looking at the definition of the platform (in the bill) and not necessarily about the content,” Grall said.

But Kara Gross, legislative director and senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Florida, said the proposal is a “government censorship bill, and it is aimed at stifling the freedom of expression online.” Also, critics said the bill would take away the rights of parents to make decisions about their children using social media.

“The internet, including social media platforms, contains vast amounts of constitutionally protected speech, for both adults and minors,” Gross said.

Along with preventing children under 16 from creating social media accounts, the proposal would require social media platforms to terminate existing accounts that are “reasonably known” by the platforms to be held by minors younger than 16 and would allow parents to request that minors’ accounts be terminated.

The proposal also would require platforms to use independent organizations to conduct age verifications when new accounts are created and would require the denial of accounts for people who do not verify their ages. The organizations would be required to delete the data after ages are verified.

The House overwhelmingly passed its version of the bill and sent it to the Senate, where it has been assigned to the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee. Renner acknowledged Thursday that the bill likely would face changes to try to ensure that it would withstand court challenges.

Renner made the comment when asked about concerns raised by Gov. Ron DeSantis about the constitutionality of the bill, including its “breadth.” Renner said the House has been working closely with the Senate and DeSantis’ office to agree on a bill that would be upheld by the courts. A House bill sponsor, Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, was in the audience Monday watching the Senate Judiciary Committee discussion.

Grall echoed themes that Renner has used, including that social media platforms target children with addictive features.

“By allowing these companies to hard-wire the brains of our children to become addicted, they are hard-wiring the proclivity toward addiction at a very young age,” she said.

But Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Davie, questioned the effectiveness of an “all-abstinence approach” and pointed to parental rights.

“I don’t want the government telling me what and how and what my children should be doing,” Book said. “That’s my job as a parent.”

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