House Bill 18, by Rep. Shelby Slawson, R-Stephenville, is aimed at giving parents more tools to protect their children from “harmful” content online and limiting how websites can use minors’ data. The bill passed with a 125-20 vote April 26 and now heads to the Texas Senate.
On the House floor, Slawson shared the stories of Texas teenagers who were exposed to harmful content, dangerous “challenges” and information about drugs online. She said online platforms are motivated to “increase clicks, shares, likes, views and screen time” rather than improving the well-being of their users.
“Let me be very clear that our children are not the customers of these platforms—they are the commodity being traded,” Slawson said. “Their young minds are being shaped by addictive algorithms.”
Known as the Securing Children Online through Parental Empowerment Act, Slawson’s proposal is a priority of House Speaker Dade Phelan. The bill prevents digital service providers, which include social media companies, apps and other websites, from making agreements with minors without the consent of a parent or guardian.
This means Texans under age 18 would not be allowed to create social media accounts without their parents’ approval. According to the bill, adults could provide consent and confirm their identity as the child’s guardian through a mailed or electronic form, a phone or video call, an email, or by providing a government-issued ID.
Social media companies typically require users to be at least 13 years old but don’t closely regulate who can join their platforms. On April 26, U.S. senators introduced the "Protecting Kids on Social Media Act," which would officially prevent children under the age of 13 from creating social media accounts. Similar to Texas' legislation, the federal proposal would also require parental consent for teens to create accounts and prevent companies from "feeding content using algorithms to users under the age of 18."
The bill says digital service providers have a duty to “prevent physical, emotional, and developmental harm” to minors. Providers would be required to limit teens’ exposure to content about self-harm, suicide and eating disorders; drugs, alcohol and substance use; bullying and harassment; sexual exploitation, grooming, trafficking and pornography; and “predatory, unfair, or deceptive marketing practices.”
Slawson said parents could choose to turn off location services, targeted advertising and in-app purchases for their children’s social media accounts. But she emphasized that providers would not be allowed to “discriminate” against or ban teens and parents who select “the highest privacy settings available” for their accounts.
Parents could also request to receive a report on the use, collection and storage of their child’s data by digital service providers.
The bill does not impact online content shared by state agencies or educational institutions. Slawson said it would also not prevent minors from accessing information about gender and sexuality or searching for resources on sexual assault.
“Texas parents have had enough. Our responsibility as parents is to shepherd our children’s use of all online tools, including social media, and equip our kids to be informed digital citizens,” Slawson said in a statement after filing the bill in February. “Parents are doing their best and demand better from digital platforms to keep our kids safe.”
On April 5, the House approved HB 4 by Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake. As part of the House’s plan to take on “Big Tech,” the bill would regulate how businesses collect and use Texans’ data online.