Texas kids would need parental consent to create social media accounts under House bill

Texas kids would need parental consent before creating a social media account under the SCOPE Act that advanced in the House on Tuesday. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

The Texas House on Wednesday approved a bill that would require digital service providers such as social media platforms to get consent from a parent or guardian before entering into an agreement with minors younger than 18, including to create an account.

Under House Bill 18, from Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, social media companies will need to get consent from the parent of a minor through a form, toll-free telephone line, coordinated video conference call, collecting info from government-issued identification — with the expectation the info will be deleted — or email. The requirement would not be retroactive for accounts that already exist, for which users already agreed to term and use contracts, however services will be expected to fulfill a duty of exercising reasonable care to prevent harm to a known minor – another part of the bill.

Members of the lower chamber on Tuesday gave the bill — a priority of Speaker Dade Phelan — initial approval with a voice vote following roughly 45 minutes of questions from lawmakers about how the bill would work and two failed amendments from Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington. On Wednesday, the full chamber overwhelmingly approved the proposal with a 125-20 vote. It will now head to the Senate.

HB 18 would also let parents request access to any data on social media associated with the minor; companies would be required to establish “a simple and easily accessible method” for these requests.

An amendment that was adopted protects trade secrets from disclosure, Slawson said.

Under the bill, providers that allow advertisers to advertise to known minors will also be required to disclose in a clear and accessible manner certain info at the time the ad is displayed, such as how any data associated with the minor’s use of the service leads to each ad.

State agencies, political subdivisions, small businesses and higher education institutions are among the entities excluded from following the bill’s protocols.

Slawson has said the bill, called the Securing Children Online through Parental Empowerment, or SCOPE, Act aims to give parents more control of how minors’ private info is collected and used by digital service providers.

“Our children are experiencing all manner of harms via overexposure to digital platforms and predatory algorithms, manifesting in increased rates of self-harm, suicide, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and other mental health issues,” Slawson said in a statement after the bill was voted out of a House committee two weeks ago. “Texas parents have had enough.”

Young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 account for 15% of all suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the rate is lower than that of other age groups, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for youth. The rate of suicide for this age group has increased by 52.2% between 2000 and 2021.

Opponents of the measure, including Meta — formerly Facebook Inc.— whose representative testified against the bill at a committee hearing, say while well-intentioned, the bill may nonetheless bring unintended consequences that could undermine already-established safeguards. The company said it has established more than 30 tools for teens and families, including around age verification and limiting time spent on Instagram.

Others have raised concerns about the bill offering a temporary solution to bigger problems of youth mental health that will eventually need addressing.

“We automatically set teens’ accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks,” Meta said in a statement. “We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and of the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it’s reported to us. We’ll continue to work closely with experts, policymakers, and parents on these important issues.”

Last month, Utah enacted a similar law that restricts youth use of social media without parental consent.

Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

We can’t wait to welcome you Sept. 21-23 to the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, our multiday celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news — all taking place just steps away from the Texas Capitol. When tickets go on sale in May, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.