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U.S. Launches Probe Into TikTok

todayMarch 4, 2022 20

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U.S. Launches Probe Into TikTok

By Hannah Dunbar


As TikTok’s popularity continues to grow in recent years, many have wondered how exactly this app has affected young people’s mental health. United States attorney generals have just launched a nationwide investigation into TikTok and its possible harmful effects on young users’ mental health, widening government scrutiny of the wildly popular video platform. This investigation was announced on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.


TikTok is a universal app (known as Douyin in China) that has a video-focused social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance Ltd. It hosts a variety of short-form user-based videos, from genres like pranks, stunts, tricks, jokes, dance, and entertainment with durations from 15 seconds to 3 minutes. It was launched in 2016. It is similar to that of Vine in 2013, which was another type of website that also hosted videos but you only had 6-seconds to make a funny video.


Research company eMarketer estimates 90 million U.S. users in 2022. The platform also has faced growing questions about its security and user-safety practices.


U.S. lawmakers and regulators have criticized TikTok, citing practices and computer-driven promotion of content they say can endanger the physical and mental health of young users. The platform has an estimate of about 1 billion monthly users, and it is especially popular with the younger demographic.


Last month, Feb. 2022, the state of Texas launched opened an investigation into the alleged violations of TikTok invading children’s privacy along with facilitation of human trafficking. The investigation aims to determine if TikTok is violating the law in promoting its platform to young people.


Government officials and child-safety advocates claim that TikTok’s computer algorithms pushing video content to younger users can cause depression, substance abuse, eating disorders self-harm and even suicide.


TikTok has said that it does focus on age-appropriate experiences- citing one of the features that younger users do not have access to direct messaging. It has tools implemented, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what kind of content that they see.


Earlier last year- after federal regulators ordered it to disclose how its practices affect children and teenagers, TikTok tightened their privacy features for users under the age of 18. That meant only someone the user approves as a follower can view their videos, which was not the case previously. However, teens were still able to change this setting to public if they want. For users aged 16 or 17, the default setting to let people download the videos they created is now “off,” rather than “on.” Any other users cannot download videos created by users who are under 16, the videos at all.


It is not the first time TikTok has received massive criticism.  The criticism usually comes from state officials, federal regulators, consumer advocates and lawmakers of both parties. Republicans have especially pointed out the company’s ties to China.


“TikTok threatens the safety, mental health and well-being of our kids,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.


Until recently, many of the questions around TikTok have focused on its data security. U.S. officials worry that TikTok could be used to support military or intelligence activities by tracking Americans’ user locations.


The move is also an extension of an investigation unveiled by the same group of eight state attorneys general into Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram and Facebook. It was also discovered that Facebook wiretapped their users’ bank accounts.


The Instagram probe was implemented last year in November 2021. 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. In both investigations, prosecutors are examining whether the companies violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk.


Lawmakers in both parties have been considering measures to improve online protections for minors. U.S. President Joe Biden chimed in on the situation as well on Tuesday. Biden called on Congress to ban excessive data collection on children and young people and to disallow targeted advertising directed toward them. This would make Social-media companies like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, etc. be held responsible for harm they cause to children under bipartisan legislation.


The Commerce Department is also currently working on a rule change that would expand federal oversight to explicitly include foreign-owned apps. This 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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