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Arkansas Still Looking to Limit Children's Access to Social Media

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LITTLE ROCK – Limiting children’s access to social media is still a priority for Arkansas policy makers.

Last week the governor sent a letter to the governors of all 50 states, and to all Arkansas legislators, urging them to continue working for meaningful restrictions on children’s use of social media platforms.

With the letter she includes a copy of a book titled “The Anxious Generation,” written by Jonathan Haidt. He is a social psychologist at New York University. The book recommends strategies to fight the recent, dramatic increases in mental health issues among young people, such as depression, anxiety and suicide.

Last year the legislature passed Act 689, the Social Media Safety Act. It would have made Arkansas the first state to enact laws requiring juveniles to obtain parental consent before they could open a social media account.

However, enforcement of Act 689 was delayed by a federal judge last year after a group of social media companies filed a legal challenge. That lawsuit is still winding its way through the judicial system.

Other states have enacted similar laws designed to limit the accessibility of social media by young people, including Utah, Louisiana, Texas and California. Lawsuits seeking to strike them as unconstitutional have been filed by an industry group called NetChoice.

The industry has cited First Amendment rights in its challenge of laws that limit the use of social media. Tech industry lawyers argue that social media is different than a casino or a liquor store because it is a platform for communication, and not a location of privileged activity for adults.

Act 689 generated controversy as it progressed through the legislature during the 2023 regular session. It was opposed by legislators of both parties. One concern was the act’s requirement that social media companies hire a third party vendor to verify the ages of account holders.

Even though Act 689 prohibits vendors from keeping any identifying information about account holders. Opponents of the law are skeptical and argue that because it requires a user to submit an ID, it magnifies the risk of identity theft.

The governor has been outspoken in her criticism of the tech industry that operates social media sites. Last year, when a federal judge halted enforcement of Act 689, she wrote on social media that “big Tech companies put our kids’ lives at risk. They push an addictive product that is shown to increase depression, loneliness, and anxiety and puts our kids in human traffickers’ crosshairs.”

In her recent letter to legislators and the nation’s governors, she wrote that “millions of American kids have fallen into the dark sewer of social media and screen addiction.”

In his book, Haidt lists four guidelines for helping young people avoid mental health issues created by an addiction to cell phones. The first is not to allow smartphones before high school. The second is for parents not to allow children access to social media before they turn 16. The third is to have phone-free schools and the fourth is to encourage more outdoor play and childhood independence.

The governor reiterated the four points in her letter to lawmakers and governors.

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