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More US states are suing TikTok over child threat

Georgia Representative Buddy Carter speaks about TikTok safeguarding in Washington DC in March. Credit: Getty

October 12, 2023 - 10:00am

This week the Governor of Utah announced that the state is suing TikTok over allegations that the app’s deliberately “addictive nature” harms children, and that it obscures its relationship with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Governor Spencer J.Cox said that Utah “will no longer tolerate TikTok misleading parents that its app is safe for children” and that the app has “left our youth at risk […] in exchange for profit and greed”.

There is no doubt that TikTok is designed to maximise and prolong user engagement. The app, which has been downloaded more than 165 million times in the US, allows users to almost infinitely scroll through bite-sized content recommended by an ever more intelligent algorithm that promises endless, personalised entertainment. This is a problem: the average time spent on TikTok by kids and teenagers is, astoundingly, 91 minutes a day.

Yet all social media apps exploit vulnerabilities in human psychology. The “like” function on Instagram, the “repost” button on Twitter/X, the “thumbs up” feature on Facebook: all fuel our need for social acceptance. WhatsApp’s double tick symbol, where users can see if you have read a message, puts pressure on people to reply instantly. Gamification elements like Snapchat Streaks compel users to check the app multiple times a day, while Netflix and YouTube automatically continue playing videos so you don’t have to lift a finger. The “pull to refresh” feature is like a digital slot machine: pull the lever, and look at all the new gifts with which you are rewarded. 

Utah is not the first state to take legal action: Indiana launched a similar lawsuit against TikTok last year, a Maryland school district sued the app in June, and Montana has signed a bill banning the app from 2024. Yet, ultimately, these lawsuits seem motivated by espionage, surveillance and data-sharing fears rather than concerns over children’s mental health. A growing distrust of China — one of the only things that Democrats and Republicans seem to have in common — means that more and more senators are backing bipartisan legislation to give President Biden new powers to ban the app on national security grounds. 

These fears may be warranted, but from a safeguarding perspective, bans will not help protect children’s mental health. When India banned TikTok in 2020 over security concerns, it simply led to the creation of copycat apps and a surge in Instagram users; a ban in America would inevitably lead to the same thing. An outright ban is unlikely to solve America’s data privacy problems, has serious implications for the First Amendment, and will ultimately do nothing to reduce children’s screen times. Instead, it is just a single move in a wider geopolitical game, and one which they may not legally be able to see through.

If US states want to target TikTok specifically, they should perhaps focus less on its impact on mental health (which many social media companies are responsible for), and instead on its numerous data breaches. TikTok has already been fined for breaching child privacy regulations by the EU, UK and the US, and its poor track record makes it uniquely culpable and unreliable. One option might be to introduce age-verification legislation for TikTok (as has been done for pornography websites) which might help quell fears about children’s data. When it comes to tackling youth addictions to screens though, we are still a long way from weaning them off, and removing one drug will just make them seek another.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.


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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
9 months ago

Why don’t we face up to our responsibilities as parents and stop buying our kids mobile phones ?

Nona Yubiz
Nona Yubiz
9 months ago

Our scattershot approach to our multitude of social ills pretty much guarantees their perpetuation.

Dionne Finch
Dionne Finch
9 months ago

I just have banned TikTok and snapchat from my 12yr olds phone after learning that the children in his age group are using it to arrange for vapes. TikTok was sending him vaping videos and snapchat was being used to send messages to arrange purchase which then ‘disappear’. I kicked up a fuss with the entire parent group and the common reply was ‘we are all struggling’
My son is much happier now, he’s back outside playing with sticks and reading Harry Potter.