Social media law well-intentioned but flawed

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Florida’s new law banishing children from social media platforms takes effect on Jan. 1, so we can expect two things to happen right after New Year’s Day.

If they haven’t already done so, big companies like Meta, X, TikTok and similar weapons of mass distraction will send pinstriped brigades of lawyers into federal courts to block implementation of the statute. A coalition of tech giants has already unleashed preemptive legal actions against similar legislation in other states — arguing that somewhere in the Great Beyond, the spirit of Thomas Jefferson sobs silently for what state legislators have done to our sacred First Amendment.

In this photo illustration, popular social media apps X, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, LinkedIn, and Facebook Messenger are seen.

Second, New Year’s Day is a Wednesday, but before the first week of 2025 is out, every elementary and middle school in Florida will have a few secret apps or bogus logins circulating among students who want to keep on doing whatever it is they’re doing with their phones and laptops now. When we were kids, the grownups tried to stop us from getting cigarettes, beer and tattered issues of Playboy — with mixed results — so it probably won’t be too difficult for your average seventh grader to continue scrolling through sites on the bus to school every morning.

As Gov. Ron DeSantis and other supporters of the new Florida law point out, we’ve always had laws forbidding youngsters to gamble, drive cars, sign contracts, get tattoos or have many other sorts of fun. Protecting them from online activities with potentially addictive qualities and demonstrably harmful side-effects ranging from depression to suicide doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

House Bill 3, which was a priority of House Speaker Paul Renner in the recently adjourned legislative session, forbids anyone age 13 or younger from creating social-media accounts and requires companies to remove accounts of kids already on their sites. Parental consent will be required for 14- and 15-year-olds to have accounts.

Another section of the new law requires “adult” websites to block minors. That means porn fans will need to prove their age eligibility through a verification route.

These are quite desirable goals and reasonable attempts at protecting impressionable young minds. But even with the best intentions, the bipartisan House and Senate majorities that enacted the law have posed some serious constitutional questions.

Analogies to smoking, drinking or other adults-only activities are logical, but those are practices with measurable physical effects on an adolescent body. Psychological harm and internet addiction have been reasonably related to spending too many hours gazing and scrolling, but millions of users probably enjoy these sites casually — you could say mindlessly — without depression, suicidal thoughts or damage to body image and self-perception.

The internet is, admittedly, a sewer. But it also has its beneficial uses.

The same kid who’s getting hateful messages or seeing sadistic violence on some obscure site can also watch — or post — videos of some goofy teen-ager dancing or singing, telling jokes or ranting about political events. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation, propaganda and just plain lying bounces around the net, like the famous Osama bin Laden letter that enthralled thousands a couple months ago, but you can get garbage from your television or newspaper just as easily.

Restricting TikTok isn’t going to safeguard every kid’s self-esteem. In the 1950s, the grandparents to today’s middle schoolers could spread vicious rumors, cruel jokes, racist remarks or sexual lies in homeroom, and it was all over school before lunch time. Today’s kids just have faster transmission devices.

Protecting children is a noble goal, the most-cited reason behind everything legislators have done in the culture wars. Last year it was drag shows and library books. Now it’s online “influencers.”

Nobody wants to defend porn sites or the swill that swirls around much of social media. Facebook and Tik Tok claim to be policing their platforms, removing hate speech and obscenity, but self-censorship will always be selective.

The trouble is, where the First Amendment says, “freedom of speech,” it doesn’t say “except for people under 14.” Where it says, “freedom of the press,” it doesn’t say “but only if you’ve registered your date of birth with an independent verification service.”

Whatever forbidden fruit is out there, you know the kids are going to find ways to get at it. And they will find allies in some big companies with bottomless bankrolls to pay lawyers who’ll fight to keep the net just as it is.

Bill Cotterell

Bill Cotterell

Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for United Press International and the Tallahassee Democrat. He writes a weekly column for The News Service of Florida and City & State Florida. He can be reached at


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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Bill Cotterell: Social media law well-intentioned but flawed

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