Utah Sues TikTok, Alleging It Keeps Children Addicted Using Slot Machine-Like Algorithm

The state also took issue with TitTok’s efforts to downplay its association with its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance.
Utah Sues TikTok, Alleging It Keeps Children Addicted Using Slot Machine-Like Algorithm
The TikTok logo is displayed at a TikTok office in Culver City, Calif., on Dec. 20, 2022. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

The State of Utah on Tuesday sued TikTok, accusing the social media company of intentionally fostering an “addictive and unhealthy” digital experience for its youngest users and fueling a mental health crisis.

The lawsuit, filed in a Salt Lake City court, alleges the Chinese-owned company has been exploiting children into “checking and watching the app compulsively” while keeping them ignorant about the negative effects it could have on their mental well being, physical development, and many other aspects of their life.

“TikTok intentionally designed and deployed an addictive product to bring itself financial gain by monetizing the attention of young users,” the state wrote in the complaint, comparing the platform’s algorithm-driven, personalized “short-form” video feed to slot machines at casinos.

“Like a slot machine, users ’swipe down' on the app to load more videos continuously, each new video requiring only a small investment of their time, and the user is excited for each new video by the possibility that it might be incredibly rewarding,” it explained. “This pattern keeps users engaged, constantly anticipating that dopamine rush.”

This compulsive, prolonged use of the TikTok app could have “incredibly dangerous” impacts on children’s development, especially for those in a transition from childhood to adulthood, the state argued.

“TikTok knows harms children, including in Utah, is an unconscionable business practice,” the complaint stated. “TikTok also misrepresents that its app is safe for use, when it knows it is not.”

The state also took issue with TikTok’s efforts to downplay its association with its parent company ByteDance.

ByteDance, as a Beijing-based company, is subject to the laws of China, including laws requiring tech companies to provide user data to the Chinese government.

“TikTok is, at most, a nominally separate corporate entity. It is unable to operate independently from ByteDance, which continues to house TikTok’s HR department and in-house legal department,” the state argued. “TikTok also continues to rely on access to ByteDance’s resources, expertise, and code to operate.”

With its lawsuit, Utah is seeking to stop TikTok’s alleged violations of state consumer protection laws. It is also asking the court to impose a penalty of at least $300,000, as well as a minimum of $300,000 in restitution and damages.

During a press conference announcing the suit, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said money isn’t the state’s priority.

“My top priority is protecting our children in Utah,” Mr. Reyes said. “I’m tired of TikTok lying to Utah parents. I’m tired of our kids losing their innocence and even their lives addicted to the dark side of social media. TikTok will only change if put at legal risk—and ‘at risk’ is where they have left our youth in exchange for profit and greed.”

According to Mr. Reyes, Utah has the largest percentage of minors per capita in the nation. More than a quarter (27.6 percent) of the Beehive State’s population are eighteen or younger.

Like many other states, Utah in recent years saw a deterioration of mental health among its younger residents. In 2023, over three quarters (76.7 percent) of Utah’s middle- and high-school-aged children reported symptoms of depression, and almost one-third (32.3 percent) of students reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless.

According to the most recent analysis by Utah’s public health department, some 17.6 percent of all students reported seriously considering attempting suicide this year, while 19.8 percent of students reported episodes of purposeful self-harm, including cutting or burning themselves.

TikTok didn’t respond to a request for comments on the lawsuit.

Tuesday’s lawsuit comes as hundreds of public school districts across the nation have joined forces in suing TikTok, Snapchat, and Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, over the role those social media platforms play in the “unprecedented mental health crisis” among teenagers.

Those suits have been consolidated in a federal district Court in Oakland, California, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok have been protected by the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which generally shields websites from liability for content published by their users. Congress passed the law in 1996, after a New York court held a web service provider liable for offensive messages posted to a bulletin board it hosted.

The schools, however, argued that Section 230 doesn’t apply here. The reasoning is that social media companies have created “an addictive product that pushes destructive content to youth—and that a product, unlike content, doesn’t enjoy Section 230 protections,” noted the Journal.