Colorado Legislators Kill Bill Meant to Protect Youth on Social Media | Westword

Social Media Bill Killed Amid Concerns From Abortion, Natural Medicine Advocates

The sponsor promised to bring back a similar bill aimed at protecting youth on social media next year.
Protestors rallied at the Colorado Capitol on May 1 against Senate Bill 24-158.
Protestors rallied at the Colorado Capitol on May 1 against Senate Bill 24-158. Katrina Leibee
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A legislative effort to change the way young people use social media was thrown out Wednesday, May 1, after receiving major pushback from abortion rights and natural medicine groups.

Senate Bill 24-158
 sought to require that social media platforms verify users' ages, implement default protective settings for minors and provide tools for parents that limit their child's access to features like appearance-altering filters, endless scrolling and private messaging. Parents could also request to be notified when their children interact with an adult user's account or with sexually exploitative material.

Proponents argued the bill would protect juveniles from sexual predators and prevent them from accessing drugs and weapons online. But the bill sponsor, Representative Meghan Lukens, said unforeseen problems arose with only one week left in the legislative session, forcing her to kill the bill.

"The reality is, this bill simply needs more time," Lukens said during the May 1 House Education Committee. "I am optimistic, after work during the interim, that I can come back with a strong, effective version of this bill. A version that protects all young people from bad actors on social media."

At Lukens's request, the committee unanimously voted to postpone the bill until after the session ends, effectively terminating the measure.

This came after the bill had already passed the Senate in a 30-1 vote on April 17, with only Senator Rod Pelton voting against the measure. Pelton tells Westword he opposed the bill because "it's a federal issue, and they're working on solutions."

But concerns that led to the bill's demise had nothing to do with whether the state should get involved with youth social media use.

One portion of the bill would have gone beyond impacting minors, requiring social media platforms to remove users of any age who sold illicit substances or promoted or sold illegal firearms and sexually exploitative material involving minors.

Advocates of natural psychedelic medicines rallied in opposition to this part of the bill, arguing that it could prevent Coloradans from posting about drugs that are now decriminalized in Colorado. The natural medicine enthusiasts marched at the Capitol hours before the May 1 committee hearing to ask legislators to vote it down.

"Where does the public go for information nowadays? Social media. And if they're limited on social media, I don't feel like this is going to help people get information," Meaghan Richmond, owner of Plant Magic Cafe, told Westword ahead of the march. "We totally understand wanting [to protect children]; however, we don't think censoring information is a good idea."

According to Lukens, amendments could have addressed those concerns, including removing marijuana and natural medicines from the definition of illicit substances and only prohibiting the sale of illicit substances instead of the promotion of them.

However, issues raised by abortion advocates made the bill unworkable, she added. These advocates worried the bill would be used by states where abortion is illegal to target people who travel to Colorado for abortion care. Social media played such a role in Nebraska in 2022, when police used a woman's Facebook messages as evidence that she helped her teenage daughter abort a pregnancy.

"We cannot move forward with the full version of this bill because Roe v. Wade was overturned two years ago," Lukens said. "That's why we're in this situation. ... In anti-abortion states, folks are using bills like this one to target people trying to access abortion."

SB 158 was backed by the district attorneys of Denver, Boulder, Arapahoe County, El Paso County and Jefferson County, who testified that their districts have struggled with drugs and guns being traded over social media to and between juveniles. Nearly two dozen organizations registered in support of the bill, including Children's Hospital Colorado, the Association of Chiefs of Police, Denver Public Schools and the Colorado Psychiatric Society.

Multiple teenagers testified in favor of the bill on May 1, describing toxic and dangerous situations they found themselves in because of social media.

An unnamed sixteen-year-old from Boulder County said that when she was eleven, she joined an Instagram group chat that she thought consisted of other LGBTQ youth. She began chatting with a member who claimed to be a thirteen-year-old girl. At the unknown Instagram user's insistence, she was pressured into sending inappropriate photos of herself.

"This turned out to be a much older guy. He threatened to leak the photos on explicit sites if I did not send more," the Boulder teen testified. "I was panicked and had no one to turn or talk to. ... No other eleven-year-old should be put through that."

Other young witnesses spoke of receiving unwanted nude photos from adults and getting hooked on drugs bought online. Some Colorado parents said they lost their children to overdoses from drugs purchased on social media.

Legislators assured the witnesses that although SB 158 failed, they will take up this issue again when the Colorado Legislature reconvenes in January.

"It might be slow, but I hope we get there soon," said committee chair Barbara McLachlan.
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