Questions of parental rights raised as Florida lawmakers push social media ban for minors

Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted Florida as the “birthplace of the parents’ revolution.”

In the name of parental rights, Florida lawmakers have passed a slew of sweeping policies in recent years. Classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation has been restricted. Thousands of books have been removed, some pending review and others permanently, from school shelves across the state.

But barreling through the Florida House this legislative session is a bill that would ban Floridians younger than 16 from social media – regardless of what a parent may want.

It’s a priority of House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican. The bill (HB 1) requires social media platforms to use age verification methods to prevent accounts for those younger than 16 years old and to terminate existing accounts.

Renner says not allowing for parental consent removes a “social pressure” from parents: “If we just let parents decide on this one, parents are going to be harangued so much because it makes a kid ostracized not to be on social media,” he said at a press conference last week.

But when the bill passed its second and final House committee on Wednesday, several Democrats and Republicans who voted for the bill also said they wanted changes before it goes to the chamber for a final vote. Of particular concern is the lack of any exceptions in the ban.

Rep. Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona, said he agreed with someone who testified earlier in the committee that “we want parental controls, not bans.” He continued: “You’ve got my support, but I’m going to tell you this conversation is not over.”

Rep. Kevin Chambliss, D-Homestead, was in favor of the bill but he too said he would not “commit to that on the floor necessarily.”

“I can’t go into detail but I’ve seen (social media) at its ugliest, so I can’t in good conscience not support this effort,” Chambliss said.

Republican Rep. Tyler Sirois of Merritt Island, a sponsor of the bill, compared the restrictions to buying alcohol, going to a casino or getting a tattoo.

“This is our best attempt today to try to address a problem that is devastating our youth,” Sirois said. “Soaring rates of depression, suicide, social isolation. I could go on and on.”

It passed the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday by a 17-5 vote, with all the “no’s” coming from Democrats. Another Renner priority (HB 3), which requires age verification for porn website viewership, also passed.

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Parental rights, constitutional questions

Concerns about the impact of social media on teens continues to rise. Nearly 95% of teenagers between 13 and 17 report using social media, with more than a third of them saying they use the platforms “almost constantly,” according to a U.S. Surgeon General advisory released last year.

While the report found some benefits of social media among youth, it also found “ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm” to the mental health and well-being of children.

A number of states have also recently taken a stab at the issue — and some have already been knocked back by courts.

A 2023 law in Arkansas has been temporaily blocked by a federal judge. The same happened earlier this month for a new Ohio law. Both of them, though, weren’t all-out bans, allowing for parental consent.

Gary Edinger, a Gainesville-based First Amendment attorney interviewed by the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida, said he believed Florida’s version of the legislation would get blocked by courts.

“Children under 16 still have rights, so this one does severely infringe on them because it does not have exceptions,” Edinger said, though added he didn’t even think a parental permission exception passes judicial muster.

“HB 1 is very much a nanny-state kind of law, superseding the interests of parents,” he said. “Parents may think it’s perfectly fine for a 15-year-old to have a social media account, and that right is basically taken away. But it’s a constitutional right of the child as well as the adult.”

The age verification provision, which would apply to all social media users, could also run afoul of the Constitution, he warned.

Similar concerns were shared by the Democrats who voted against the bill.

“I must say that I’m torn because I see the damage that’s done (by social media),” said Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville. “But I also believe in the Constitution, and I let the Constitution be my guide.”

Hinson said it’s a needed bill and hopes it’s “improved” before it goes up for a final vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has also come out against the bill, acknowledging there’s “legitimate concerns” with social media but accusing the age ban of being a “part of a larger concerted effort to restrict and control access to information.”

“The Supreme Court has made clear that children have First Amendment rights,” said Kara Gross, its legislative director and senior policy counsel, in a statement.

“Outright denying minors access to what the U.S. Supreme Court has termed ‘the modern public square’ is unconstitutional censorship. Parents do not need the government controlling what ideas their children can and cannot access.”

Contributed: USA TODAY. This reporting content is supported by a partnership with Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners. USA Today Network-Florida First Amendment reporter Douglas Soule is based in Tallahassee, Fla. He can be reached at On X: @DouglasSoule.

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