Seemingly overnight, Americans have directed a laser focus on TikTok, the social media platform with more than 1 billion users worldwide. It’s almost as if China, home to TikTok’s parent company, has sent some kind of airborne device to attract our immediate attention, not unlike those banners pulled by airplanes at the beach.
The FBI and the Federal Communications Commission are so concerned about TikTok’s potential for China to spy on U.S. citizens that they prompted the White House on Feb. 27 to order federal agencies to remove the social-media app from government-issued mobile devices.
Two days later, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong announced a “nationwide, multistate 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.”
Tong’s announcement came on the heels of TikTok-related presentations on Feb. 28 by several legislators at a public hearing of the Connecticut Assembly’s General Law Committee.
“Social media amplifies the pressures that adolescents have always dealt with,” said Rep. Tami Zawistowski. “Bullying becomes cyberbullying. Beautiful people on TV and in magazines become influencers. Your after-school dares become your latest TikTok challenges. And the creepy guy that watches the kids at the bus stop may now be some child’s best friend and may be grooming and getting ready to exploit your child online.”
Zawistowski is the author of one of three proposed bills that address social media. In addition to her bill (HB 5025) – a measure that requires parents to offer consent before a child under 16 obtains a social-media account – Sen. Saud Anwar has authored SB 395, which mirrors Zawistowski’s bill, and Rep. Christie Carpino has introduced HB 5429 to prohibit the collection of data from minors for commercial use.
In his testimony, Anwar ticked off a litany of teen-related problems associated with social media: “depression, anxiety, screen addiction, other addictions, unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyles, obesity, negative body image, eating disorders, sleep disturbance, chronic headaches, cyberbullying, online grooming, and the list will go on and on and on.”
While it is important to distinguish between absolute correlation and causation regarding the effects of social media, a definitive link between teen’s social-media use and depression has been demonstrated.
A University of Pennsylvania study, for instance, separated 143 teens into groups with unlimited access to Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat and groups restricted to 30 minutes per platform each day. “The group with restricted social media access reported lower severity of depression and loneliness than they had at the beginning of the study.”
This is to say nothing of notorious social-media influencers. One particularly heinous example, Andrew Tate, is a British-American kickboxer who “poses with fast cars, guns and portrays himself as a cigar-smoking playboy – talks about hitting and choking women, trashing their belongings and stopping them from going out.” His reach is extensive.
“[T]he 35-year-old is not a fringe personality lurking in an obscure corner of the dark web,” reported The Guardian. “Instead, he is one of the most famous figures on TikTok, where videos of him have been watched 11.6 billion times.”
Currently, Tate sits in a Romanian jail “on suspicion of organized crime and human trafficking.” Not exactly the role model parents want for their teenage boys.
To its credit, TikTok announced last week a new feature limiting teenagers’ screen time, including an automatic prompt that requires users under 18 to enter a passcode after using the app for 60 minutes. Kids under 13 will be allowed only 30 minutes of additional time and need a parent to set the passcode.
These new moderation efforts are designed to raise user awareness of time spent on the app. As TikTok notes on its website, “Research shows that being more aware of how we spend our time can help us be more intentional about the decisions we make.”
Still, relegating the moderation of social media to the platforms themselves is a fox-and-henhouse scenario that Sen. Anwar hopes his bill would avoid. He said parental permission “should not just be a click, it should not be a screen that will come and a person has to put information in. It should be a signed document by the parent that can be uploaded.”
The fate of the legislation introduced by Anwar and Reps. Zawistowski and Carpino is anybody’s guess. But the passage of Connecticut’s Comprehensive Privacy Bill last year, scheduled to take effect on July 1, indicates the prospects for such bills are good. And given the widespread focus on TikTok currently, perhaps people are waking up to their social-media vulnerabilities – especially when it comes to the mental and physical health of teenagers.