Coalition of US States Launches Probe of TikTok Over Harms to Children

By Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
March 3, 2022 Updated: March 3, 2022

The popular video-sharing app TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, is now the subject of a probe by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general who are concerned about the effects of the app on children and teens.

The attorneys general of California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Vermont are spearheading the investigation.

“The investigation will look into the harms such usage causes to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, 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,” Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, a Republican, said in a March 2 statement.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, a Democrat, said in a statement: “As children and teens already grapple with issues of anxiety, social pressure, and depression, we cannot allow social media to further harm their physical health and mental wellbeing. State attorneys general have an imperative to protect young people and seek more information about how companies like TikTok are influencing their daily lives.”

TikTok said in a statement that it’s “focused on the safety of younger users” and limits features by age.

“We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens,” the statement reads.

The company said in early February that it was working on ways to rate and restrict content by age in order to prevent adult content from reaching teenage users of its short-video app.

Even before the announcement of the probe on March 2, TikTok had been the target of a number of separate actions in the United States and abroad over data security and privacy concerns.

Legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to ban the app from government devices because of national security risks, while the Commerce Department is considering a rule change that would expand federal oversight of foreign-owned apps to those that could be used “by foreign adversaries to steal or otherwise obtain data.”

Several lawsuits have been launched against the platform, including a class-action suit by parents in Holland over the site’s culling of their children’s personal data, seeking more than $1.7 billion damages.

TikTok has also received criticism for sharing user data with third parties to a far greater extent than its rivals in the tech space.

The latest move by the state attorneys general stems from a probe launched in November 2021 of Instagram, a site owned by Meta, formerly known as Facebook. A coalition of 44 attorneys general made a request to Facebook in May 2021 that the site scrap its plans to promote a version of Instagram catering to children younger than age 13.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”