Why These States Just Opened An Investigation Against TikTok

TikTok is always doing everything possible to keep users engaged with the platform, especially younger people between the ages of 13 and 24. Earlier this week, the short-form video platform rolled out the ability to upload 10-minute videos, making them seven minutes longer than they were last July, when users were able create three-minute videos. It seemed like a risky move — one that may have placed it under further government scrutiny.

A group of state attorneys general announced on Wednesday that it has launched a nationwide investigation into TikTok and its possible harmful effects on young people's mental health. The investigation is being led by attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont, USA.

Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts said in a press release that the group is looking into whether the way TikTok designs, operates, and promotes its platform has a negative effect on the overall health and well-being of children, teens, and young adults. It is also examining whether the social media company "violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk."

"As children and teens already grapple with issues of anxiety, social pressure, and depression, we cannot allow social media to further harm their physical health and mental wellbeing," Healey said in a statement. "State attorneys general have an imperative to protect young people and seek more information about how companies like TikTok are influencing their daily lives."

Why states are investigating TikTok

The state attorneys general are looking into not only the mental health risks TikTok usage has posed on children and teens but also what the company knew about those risks, if at all. The investigation will focus on the practices TikTok employs to boost their engagement with the video sharing platform, increase the amount of time they spend on it and the frequency in which they do so.

According to NBC News, TikTok said that it focuses on creating age-appropriate experiences, noting some features are not available to younger users, such as direct messaging. It also said that it has a screen-time management tool to help parents control how much time their children spend on the app.

"We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users," the company said.

US lawmakers, federal regulators, and child-safety advocates have criticized TikTok for promoting content they say endangers the physical and mental health of children and teens, despite the platform being popular among that age group. They have cited algorithms that push content promoting eating disorders, self-harm, and even suicide to young viewers, as well as dangerous viral challenges, such as "devious licks", which involved vandalizing bathrooms in schools nationwide last fall. The Wall Street Journal even reported that teenage girls were developing tics as a result of seeing videos about Tourette's syndrome.

How the TikTok investigation will impact the social media industry

The state attorneys general probing TikTok comes at a time when the platform and other social media sites are under more intense scrutiny from the government at large for exploiting children and their data for profit. Back in November, the same group launched an investigation into Meta, Facebook and Instagram's parent company, for allegedly promoting the latter platform to children knowing the potential harm it poses to them. 

That investigation came weeks after former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen told Congress that Instagram knew how toxic it was for teens' mental health, especially the mental health of teen girls, who came across content promoting eating disorders and self-harm. Instagram created feature that reminds teens to take a break after spending a certain amount of time on the platform as a result.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Joe Biden demanded Congress to increase privacy protections for children and teens online, including passing legislation that would ban the practice of targeted advertising. "We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they're conducting on our children for profit," he said.

TikTok narrowly escaped US government pressure before

It's not the first time TikTok has found itself in the crossfires, meanwhile. Back in mid-2020, the social network found itself the unexpected target of the Trump Administration, which threatened a ban if owner ByteDance did not sell TikTok to an American company within 45 days. Rather than mental health concerns, however, the accusation was one of potential national security implications, with ByteDance facing allegations from the US Department of Commerce at the time of "malicious collection of American citizens' personal data," and potentially sharing that with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

TikTok "collects vast swaths of data from users, including network activity, location data, and browsing and search histories" a Department of Commerce spokesperson claimed, describing the app as "an active participant in China's civil-military fusion and is subject to mandatory cooperation with the intelligence services of the CCP."

After racing to find a potential suitor in the shape of a group that included Oracle and Walmart, however, the pressure lifted after President Biden took office. The deal floundered, and efforts to drive it through by the US government "have been shelved indefinitely," the WSJ reported in February, 2021.