On Tuesday, a group of state attorneys general from across the country announced an investigation into TikTok’s impact on young people, adding to the steady drumbeat of political pressure on social media platforms.
TikTok is being investigated by a group of state attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, and other states for its potential impact on young people’s mental and physical health.
According to Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts, the group of AGs is investigating whether the way TikTok designs, operates, and markets its platform has a negative impact on the health of children, teens, and young adults.
The algorithm that determines what content users see on TikTok has proven to be extremely effective at keeping users engaged with the app.
While the company has provided some insight into how it operates, exact details are difficult to come by outside of leaks and educated guesswork.
According to Healey, the investigation will focus on “the methods and techniques” used by TikTok to “boost young user engagement, including increasing the duration of time spent on the platform.”
User engagement is somewhat mysterious
TikTok has previously struggled to meet the needs of its younger users, having to pay the Federal Trade Commission $5.7 million in 2019 to settle allegations that its predecessor, Musical.ly, failed to obtain proper permission from the parents of young children who signed up to use the app.
TikTok was also required by the settlement to strictly limit how users under the age of 13 could interact with the app’s content. Despite its massive user base, some researchers have recently raised concerns about how few studies have looked into TikTok’s potential health effects.
The investigation may have ramifications beyond TikTok. When it comes to designing new features or discussing the future of apps, other social media companies like Meta and Snapchat have been taking cues from the short-form video platform.
It’s not surprising that other apps are copying TikTok’s short-form video model; according to Meta employees, teens spend more time on TikTok than they do on Instagram, and one report claims that US Android users spend more time watching TikToks than YouTube videos.
However, if the investigation results in legislation or other actions, the copying could lead to increased scrutiny of other platforms.
Regulators, on the other hand, have been paying extra attention to children’s online safety, as another news outlet points out.
President Biden addressed the issue in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, urging Congress to pass legislation governing children’s privacy and advertising, and Facebook (now Meta) was the subject of congressional hearings last year after reports that it knowingly ignored internal research on Instagram’s impact on teen mental health.
State attorneys general are also looking into Meta, with a similar focus to the TikTok investigation announced on Wednesday.