TikTok faces scrutiny in attorneys general probe of online harms to children

The State prosecutors are examining whether the companies violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk.  (Photo: AP)
The State prosecutors are examining whether the companies violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk.  (Photo: AP)


State prosecutors add video-sharing platform to their investigation into social media’s psychological effects on young users, mental health harms

WASHINGTON : A coalition of state attorneys general is launching an investigation into TikTok, seeking information about whether and how the video-sharing platform contributes to online harms to children.

The move is an extension of an investigation unveiled by the same group of eight state attorneys general into Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram that focuses on similar concerns. The expansion adds fast-growing TikTok—owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.—to the list of targets under scrutiny. The concern that social media harms young people was one subject of a series of stories in The Wall Street Journal last year.

“Today, attorneys general across the nation joined an investigation into TikTok for providing and promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while use is associated with physical and mental health harms," the prosecutors said in a joint announcement Wednesday.

They added: “The investigation will look into the harms such usage causes to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including increasing the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform."

Leading the investigation is a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont, the group said. They are being joined by a broader group of attorneys general from across the country, according to the coalition.

The Instagram probe, announced last November, similarly focuses on how Meta increases the frequency and duration of young users’ engagement and the harm that can cause. It follows reports that Meta’s internal research shows that using Instagram has been associated with increased risks of physical and mental health harm to young people, including depression and eating disorders, attorneys general have said.

In both investigations, prosecutors are examining whether the companies violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk.

“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,’’ said a TikTok spokesperson. “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens."

The company also pointed to specific measures it has taken in recent months to increase protections for younger users, such as halting push notifications at night for specific age groups.

Meta has said the Instagram investigation was premised on a misunderstanding of issues that also affect other social-media platforms.

TikTok can drive users into rabbit holes of potentially harmful content about depression, sexual abuse, drug use and eating disorders, The Wall Street Journal reported last year. The Journal also has reported on harm Instagram can cause teenagers, including contributing to body image issues.

Lawmakers in both parties have been considering measures to improve online protections for children.

President Biden added his voice to the effort in his State of Union address Tuesday night. He called on Congress to ban excessive data collection on children and young people and to disallow targeted advertising directed toward them. The administration also favors steps to discourage the use of platform-design techniques that can contribute to addiction and other problems, according to a White House fact sheet.

TikTok has soared in popularity in recent years, with an estimated 90 million or so U.S. users in 2022, according to research company eMarketer. The platform also has faced growing questions about its security and user-safety practices.

Until recently, many of the questions around TikTok have focused on its data security. U.S. officials worry that TikTok and similar apps could be used to support military or intelligence activities by other countries, for instance by tracking U.S. users’ locations.

The government also is concerned about the potential use of TikTok and similar apps to collect sensitive personal data. U.S. officials maintain that TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps could be forced to share data with China’s authoritarian government. Those companies have disputed that contention. Beijing has suggested the U.S. is politicizing the issue and has urged American authorities to provide an open, fair and nondiscriminatory business environment for market players from other countries.

The Commerce Department is completing a rule change that would expand federal oversight to explicitly include foreign-owned apps that could be used by “foreign adversaries to steal or otherwise obtain data," according to a filing in the Federal Register. That could force social-media platforms such as TikTok to submit to third-party auditing, source-code examination and monitoring of logs that show user data.

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