TikTok faces investigation for its effect on kids' mental health

For representational purpose
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For representational purpose

Highlights

Several state attorneys general are concerned about the safety and well-being of children.

A coalition of state attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, and more is investigating TikTok for its potential effect on young kids' mental and physical health (via CNBC). According to a news release from Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey, the AG group is looking to see if the way TikTok designs, operates and markets its platform negatively affects the health of children, teens, and young adults.

TikTok's algorithm determines what content users see and has proven to be very effective in keeping users engaged with the app. Unfortunately, while the company has offered some insight into how it works, it's hard to understand the exact details outside of leaks and informed guesswork. However, the attorney's general may be looking to change that: the investigation will focus on "the methods and techniques" TikTok uses to "boost young user engagement, including increasing the duration of time spent on the platform."

TikTok has struggled in the past to meet the needs of its younger users: It had to pay $5.7 million to the FTC in 2019 to settle allegations that its predecessor, Musical.ly, didn't get proper permission from consumers, parents of young children who registered to use the application. The settlement also required TikTok to strictly limit how users under 13 could interact with the app's content. In addition, despite its vast user base, some researchers recently sounded the alarm about the few studies that looked at TikTok's potential health impacts.

TikTok spokesman Ben Rathe told The Verge that the company "appreciates that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users" and hopes to "provide insights into the many security and privacy protections" that it provides has for teenagers.

The research could have an impact beyond TikTok. Other social media companies like Meta and Snapchat have inspired the short-form video platform when designing new features or discussing the future of apps. Other apps that duplicate TikTok's short-form video model aren't surprising; Employees at Meta reportedly estimated that teens spent more than twice as much time on TikTok as they did on Instagram, and one report estimated that US Android users spent more time watching TikTok than YouTube videos. But the copy could lead to other platforms receiving greater scrutiny if the TikTok investigation results in legislation or other action.

As The New York Times points out, regulators have been paying particular attention to the safety of children online. On Tuesday, President Biden addressed the issue in his State of the Union address, calling on Congress to pass laws regulating privacy and advertising directed at children. In addition, Facebook (now Meta) found itself at the centre of hearings from Congress last year after reports he knowingly ignored. Internal research on the effect of Instagram on adolescent mental health. Meta is also facing its investigation by state attorneys general, with a similar approach to the one announced by the TikTok investigation on Wednesday.


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