From fellow conservative states, here’s a model for Kansas to protect kids from social media

May 19, 2023 3:33 am
Close up of woman's hand using smartphone.

States are creating a new normal by passing restrictions on children's social media use, writes Eric Thomas, and Kansas should follow suit. (Getty Images)

After a day of skiing in December, my then-13-year-old son made a pitch to me while we were sitting in a hot tub in Colorado. Surrounded by knee-deep snow, he asked if I would let him have his first social media app, SnapChat. 

The price? He was willing to run a lap around the house through four snow drifts on his way back to the hot tub. His protection from the stinging winter wind? His bathing suit. 

We shook on it because I couldn’t imagine he would make it halfway. No way he would suffer that much for an app. 

Ninety seconds later he rounded the corner of the house, his knees popping up like pistons out of the snow. “I did it,” he said, arriving back at the hot tub with a grin. “Now you have to give it to me. You promised.”

Kids want these apps badly. 

While I am more stubborn than most fellow parents about delaying our kids having social media, I caved to my son with that snowy hot tub bet. I allowed him to have social media before the landmark date that I originally had set: entrance to high school. We parents struggle to hold the line. 

Enter an unlikely hero: conservative state legislatures.

The surge of harmful lawmaking in conservative states, including Kansas, in the last few months has many people wincing when they hear that legislation has been passed in states like Arkansas and Utah. 

That is the reputation that Arkansas has earned with a bill restricting classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender-affirming care, while Utah’s legislature passed a bill to close all abortion clinics in the state. 

I’m here to showcase a counterweight to those ill-conceived restrictions: laws passed in both Arkansas and Utah that reset the conversation about social media and kids. These laws — while not perfect — are progress.

Utah’s legislation was the first. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed bills into law on March 23 that will: 

  • Prohibit social media use for children under 18 unless parents or guardians make changes to their kids’ settings
  • Require age verification for anyone who wants to use social media in the state
  • Prevent tech companies from including addictive features in social media

Reporting — even by the Associated Press — has been a bit misleading about the Utah law. The story simply says that overnight hours are prohibited times for social media, ignoring that parents can set different hours. That is smart flexibility to put in parents’ hands. 

Arkansas quickly followed, with a similar law signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on April 12. 

The power of these laws is twofold. First, parents like me welcome standards, especially standards that delay or restrict kids’ social media use. Sure, if I was a bolder parent, I would hold firm on my rules without any concern for what other parents are doing. The reality of parenting is more complicated, though. It helps to have a norm to lean on, whether that is like-minded parents down the street or a state law. 

By passing laws, these states created a statewide new normal. And that is far more than even an ambitious nonprofit like Wait Until 8th can accomplish.

– Eric Thomas


Indeed, one organization has been organizing parents around a herd mentality to delay smartphone use for years. Called “Wait Until 8th,” this group urges parents to delay any kind of smartphone until the eighth grade. 

Their website displays many photos of teenage girls paired with headlines like “Why Wait?” While the effect is a bit like a girls’ guide to celibacy, the focus on teenage girls is strategic, given harms (from body image to tics) that young women suffer and the links social media on smartphones.

By passing laws, these states created a statewide new normal. And that is far more than even an ambitious nonprofit like Wait Until 8th can accomplish. 

Second, these laws jump into an area that needs legal experimentation. Many other states are considering laws, including liberal ones like New Jersey and California. A federal bill, the “Protecting Kids on Social Media Act,” has early bipartisan support after being introduced in late April. 

Our first attempts at these bills about kids and social media, whether at the state or federal levels, will be flawed. The logistical concerns of age verification are tangled. For instance, how can a technology company have proof of a user’s age without users uploading a secure document like a birth certificate? Should we give Facebook our most personal documents?

This is one of the many arguments from NetChoice, a tech industry lobbying group. They argue against the “unconstitutional” state laws, writing that the Arkansas law “supplants parents’ role in protecting youth online with government-knows-best restrictions.”

 But I have little sympathy for this argument — or this industry — when it comes to the online health of kids and teens. An industry that invented technology attracting billions of users can create a solution at the intersection of kids and social media.

Indeed, these companies profited when they created and supercharged the apps that we recognize today as toxic. This is the product: targeted ads, addictive software, steering teens interested in healthy eating toward accounts that glamorize eating disorders, ignoring internal research that shows harm to children. 

In essence, they created a playground for our children littered with glass. Its swings catapult kids toward dangers. Routine maintenance is ignored. And now they want to keep the playground open for our kids 24 hours a day without any supervision. 

Parents see our kids sneaking into that flawed playground each time we look across the living room to see the glare of a cell phone lighting up our kid’s face on the couch. In that moment, we recognize we need support in finding healthy norms. 

A new standard birthday when social media is allowed? A time of day when social media is off? We need those defaults and more.

To social media companies: Your obstructionism and political lobbying should be refocused on creating a healthier experience for young people. The clock is ticking. The Utah legislation goes into effect next year. It’s time for practical solutions. 

And to Kansas officials: Topeka is far from both the federal lobbyists in D.C. and the influence of California’s Silicon Valley. So, join in. Consider how to set new norms around kids and social media — while also lending support to parents who need it.

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.