TikTok consumes precious time and poses risks. If governments want to take action against it, they will need to legislate.
Data transfer, China, espionage! When it comes to TikTok, this school of thought is often entrenched, resulting in other issues being overlooked. However, this was not the case at the U.S. congressional hearing of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Thursday. The hearing also focused on the platform’s impact. Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said TikTok “prey[s] on [children’s] innocence.”
Naturally, the anti-TikTok frenzy among U.S. lawmakers prompted them to paint an exaggerated nightmare scenario. But this raises an important question: What are the consequences of spending too much time on TikTok? In 2021, kids and teenagers spent an average of 91 minutes per day on TikTok. And how might governments cope with this level of influence?
Spending a long time on TikTok doesn’t just have the potential to entertain, but can also lead to participation in dangerous challenges and equally dangerous assumptions about the world and oneself. A prominent example is the platform’s impact on body image, put to the test by filters like one that alters the bone structure of users’ faces to make them seem more attractive.
TikTok is aware of these risks. That is why it recently rolled out measures for restricting users’ screen time. You receive a warning if you exceed the time limit you set yourself. According to TikTok, the company is also currently working on a feature that would allow users to force the recommendation algorithm to hide the hundreds of hours’ worth of personalized recommendations. For the digital world, this would represent a psychological and social emergency break that every platform should provide. But it is still nowhere near enough protection!
The New Law Is Dangerous Nonsense
On Thursday, the governor of Utah signed a law intended to obligate social media platforms to, among other things, verify the age of users before allowing them to open an account, and institute a curfew barring minors from using platforms at night. It is dangerous nonsense.
The law could result in user data being directly linked to legal identities — the identities of minors, of all people, whose digital life is several years longer than that of other age groups. This could make targeting and doxxing even more dangerous. In addition, the curfew would mean depriving a certain group of people the opportunity and right to inform and express themselves freely for several hours at a time.
If governments really want to do something, they should regulate filters, establish requirements with regard to moderation, and obligate platforms to give users the option of retrieving their data and resetting the algorithms. And they should enforce these measures.
When they ask themselves who has an interest in influencing minors, they should not first think of other governments but instead of companies and extremists who feed people hate to the point of inciting extreme acts of violence. Incidentally, this does not just apply to minors. Extremists are also active in other places, such as Facebook, the platform favored by older age groups.