Legislature OKs Blanket Social Media Ban For kids Under 16

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WUFT | By Erina Anwar

Florida’s Republican-led Legislature passed a sweeping bill Thursday in Tallahassee that would ban all kids under 16 from using social media – even with a parent’s permission – and would require everyone else in the Sunshine State to prove they are adults to continue using their online accounts.Florida House passes bill banning children under 16 from social media

Within hours, Gov. Ron DeSantis resurfaced his own objections over banning high school students who are 14 or 15 and whose parents might want to give their children access. “Parents need to have a role in this,” he said at a news conference. He added, “We can’t say 100% of the uses are bad.”

“It’s still under negotiation,” DeSantis said. “We’re working.”

The Senate voted 23-14 to pass the bill, a priority of House Speaker Paul Renner and one of the most consequential and far-reaching pieces of legislation considered this year by lawmakers. The House voted later in the day 108-7 to pass the Senate’s version of the measure and send it to DeSantis for signature.

“We know that there are pedophiles and sexual predators on these platforms and children can be groomed in less than 45 minutes,” said Sen. Erin Grall, R-Fort Pierce, who championed the measure in the Senate. “The sale of human beings is happening with our most vulnerable children in these platforms.”

Grall said Thursday that she hasn’t discussed concerns with the governor or his representatives.

“I haven’t communicated with the governor’s office on the bill, at all,” Grall said.

Bill that bans kids under 16 from social media heads to Senate floor –  Orlando SentinelUnder the bill – and an amendment by Grall that passed late Wednesday – adults in Florida would be required to submit proof-of-age documents or evidence to third-party, U.S.-based companies to prove to social media companies they are old enough to use their accounts on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X, Snapchat, Reddit and others.

The bill would require that these companies immediately delete copies of any age-verification information at the end of the process and assure the anonymity of anyone who submitted it. It did not specify which documents or evidence would be acceptable to prove age, but legislative researchers said options include government-issued records such as drivers’ licenses, credit or banking records or even biometric tools that use facial recognition to estimate a person’s age.

It would go into effect July 1.

The Senate vote was largely along party lines, except that five Republicans voted against the bill and two Democrats supported it. Debate on the Senate floor was rancorous.

In the House, the only lawmakers who opposed it were Reps. LaVon Bracy Davis of Orlando, Daryl Campbell of Fort Lauderdale, Anna Eskamani of Orlando, Ashley Viola Gantt of Miami, Angela Nixon of Jacksonville and Felicia Simone Robinson of Miami Gardens – all Democrats.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said the bill – if enacted – would almost certainly be blocked by legal challenges. Critics said it interferes with the First Amendment rights of social media users. A similar law in Arkansas was blocked after a judge ruled that it placed too high a burden on adults and children attempting to access protected content.

“We are walking ourselves into a judicial defeat, and I’d like to know who’s paying for that,” Polsky said. “We’re cutting our budget, we’re cutting our programs. We’re going to spend another million dollars on defending a case that we all know is unconstitutional.”

NetChoice LLC, a trade organization for major social media platforms, said the age-verification requirement for adults in Florida raised serious privacy concerns.

“The terrifying component of this bill is a requirement that private businesses send and export sensitive personal information of users to another company,” said Carl Szabo, the group’s top lawyer. “That’s really scary that my most sensitive personal information would be required by Florida law to be sent to a third party to verify I am who I say I am.”

The bill identifies social media services as having “addictive features,” which Grall compared to drug addiction. The bill wouldn’t apply to email providers, streaming services, photo-editing applications, news sites or other popular digital services.

“This has been equated to digital fentanyl,” Grall said. “This is a different version of drug use than most of us have ever seen, but it is just as bad and it affects their brain development and it affects their ability to participate in society.”

Polsky unsuccessfully offered an amendment late Wednesday that would exempt teens under 16 in Florida who could show a reasonable need to use social media, such as young entrepreneurs, dance or recording artists or prospective athletes who showcase their talent to college coaches online.

On the Senate floor, Polsky read from a news story published earlier Wednesday by Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, that included interviews with teens who ran businesses or advocacy groups before they turned 16.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, said parents, not the government, should control what their children can do online.

“If you need 40 people hanging out in Tallahassee for 60 days to be able to teach your kids, or restrict them from something, you need to seek help,” Pizzo said.

Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, who voted against the bill said it could prevent children from watching popular cartoons on YouTube Kids.

Szabo, the lawyer for NetChoice, said his group or others would seek a preliminary injunction in court to block the bill from taking effect if signed by the governor.

“We can do that on First Amendment grounds because when it comes to free speech, the chilling of free speech, the limiting of free speech, even the threat of losing the opportunity of free speech is a harm unto itself,” Szabo said.

Grall said she believed Florida’s new law would hold up to court challenges because it targeted social media platforms with addictive features, not specific online companies. Such features include “autoplay,” when a website plays videos automatically in succession, or “infinite scroll,” when a website serves up content endlessly.

“This language is very different from some of the other states,” she said. “Some of the other states have specific exclusions for specific platforms. Those make it look like we’re targeting one platform over another versus focusing on the addictive harms that our children are facing.”