Texas Passes Bill Restricting Teens' Social Media Use

Texas lawmakers this week approved a bill that aims to regulate teenagers' ability to use social-media platforms.

Unless vetoed by Governor Greg Abbott, the Securing Children Online through Parental Empowerment Act (HB 18) will require social platforms to verify users' ages, and allow parents to access accounts of children under 18.

The bill not only prohibits social platforms from serving “harmful” content to minors, but also requires platforms to deploy filtering technology to screen out such material.

The list of content deemed harmful by lawmakers includes not only material that facilitates self-harm, eating disorders, and substance abuse, but also material that facilitates “grooming ... or other sexual exploitation or abuse.”

Much of the content Texas officials deem harmful -- such as material that could encourage eating disorders -- appears to be protected by the First Amendment. The inclusion of “grooming” in the categories of harmful content appears particularly noteworthy, given that some culture-war conservatives apply that term to a broad array of material relating to sexual orientation.

Texas is not the only state attempting to restrict teens' social-media use. Earlier this year, Utah and Arkansas enacted bills that prohibit minors from having social-media accounts without parental permission.

California also recently passed a law that requires online companies likely to be accessed by minors under 18 to prioritize their “best interests” and “well-being,” and restricts those companies' ability to collect data from minors.

The tech industry group NetChoice on Wednesday urged Abbott to veto HB 18, arguing that it violates the First Amendment.

The age verification requirement infringes on adults' and teens' First Amendment right to read online content anonymously, Carl Szabo, NetChoice general counsel, argued in a letter to Abbott.

Szabo also noted that the bill violates the First Amendment by attempting to restrict teens' ability to access digital content. He noted that the Supreme Court in 2011 struck down a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to minors, without parental consent.

“No doubt a State possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm ... but that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority in that case.

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