Is TikTok Safe for Kids? Platform Faces At Least Eight State Investigations Over Its Impact On Children and Teens

TikTok ban
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TikTok ban
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Photo Credit: Solen Feyissa

Is TikTok safe for kids and teenagers? Last year, TikTok faced multiple privacy investigations from the Irish government, a European Commission probe concerning child-protection laws, a bipartisan Senate inquiry centering on biometric data collections, and criticism over the content that it shows to minors. Now, a number of attorneys general are officially investigating the controversial app’s impact on children and teenagers. 

Eight states (Massachusetts, Florida, California, New Jersey, Vermont, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Tennessee) just recently announced their investigations into TikTok, which settled an Illinois privacy lawsuit for $92 million in 2021. The coordinated scrutiny arrives as TikTok – which has been described as “legitimate spyware” – remains extremely popular, reportedly boasting north of three billion downloads and more traffic than Google.

Furthermore, TikTok’s userbase reportedly skews young, and higher-ups have capitalized upon the platform’s prominence within demographics that are relatively difficult for companies to reach.

Most of the involved attorneys general detailed the joint inquiry via individual releases. The announcement message from the office of Tennessee AG Herbert H. Slatery III, for example, specified that “the investigation will look into physical and mental health harms associated with use of the platform and what TikTok knew about those harms.”

Additionally, the probe will focus in part “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.”

(TikTok is more addictive than YouTube, according to a 2021 study, and the short-form video-sharing service last year reportedly surpassed YouTube in average watch time per user in the US and the UK.)

“Whether online or on the streets, we are committed to protecting Kentucky children,” Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron said of the TikTok probe. “This investigation is the latest action we’ve taken to promote online safety for Kentucky’s kids, and it is a necessary step to examine TikTok’s practices and better understand the potential harms and risks to children who use the platform.”

“Our children are growing up in the age of social media – and many feel like they need to measure up to the filtered versions of reality that they see on their screens,” California AG Rob Bonta added in a statement of his own. “We know this takes a devastating toll on children’s mental health and well-being.

“But we don’t know what social media companies knew about these harms and when. Our nationwide investigation will allow us to get much-needed answers and determine if TikTok is violating the law in promoting its platform to young Californians.”

In a brief, widely circulated response to the investigations, TikTok stated: “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”

Predictably, given the above-highlighted international popularity of TikTok (known as Douyin in China) and the frequent appearance of songs in on-platform clips, the service continues to play a major role in the music industry – with a staggering 430 songs having passed one billion video views apiece on the service in 2021, according to ByteDance.

Bearing in mind TikTok’s unprecedented social relevance and ability to drive cultural trends, the Chinese Communist Party has largely avoided penalizing Beijing-headquartered ByteDance amid a broader tech-sector crackdown.

Tencent Music, for instance, has been made to give up all exclusive music deals – as ByteDance reportedly considers launching a music streaming offering of its own. Tencent Music stock (NYSE: TME) today dipped to an all-time low of $4.82 per share, down from about $28 per share in early March of 2021.