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Coalition of state attorneys general launches probe into whether TikTok harms children and teens

Massachusetts and seven other states are investigating whether the company broke consumer protection laws

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive of TikTok. A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general is investigating the company. (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg News)
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A bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general on Wednesday announced an investigation into TikTok, focused on whether the company is designing and promoting its platform in a way that harms the physical and mental health of children and teens.

The probe, announced in a news release from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, will examine whether the company’s practices violated state consumer protection laws and put the public at risk. The same attorneys general are leading a similar probe into Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook.

“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,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) said in a statement. “State attorneys general have an imperative to protect young people and seek more information about how companies like TikTok are influencing their daily lives.”

Healey is leading the investigation with attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont.

The probe was announced amid growing bipartisan scrutiny of the ways social media affects children and teens. President Biden spotlighted the issue during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, saying it was time to improve privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children and demand that tech companies stop collecting their personal data.

“We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” Biden said during Tuesday’s address.

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The attorneys general plan to focus on the methods TikTok uses to lure young users to spend extra time on the platform and open the app frequently.

TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has surged in popularity among young Americans during the pandemic. As lockdowns and social distancing restrictions shuttered schools and left Americans in their homes, they turned to the app for dance videos and other comedic relief.

But in recent months, U.S. policymakers have intensified their scrutiny of the app and how its powerful algorithm can recommend harmful content to younger children and teens. In September, the Wall Street Journal published an investigation into how the app sometimes recommends videos about adult topics, like drugs and sex, to minors.

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Republicans and Democrats have signaled that protections for children and teens online may be an area where they can work together, even in a partisan Congress. Last month, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) announced a bipartisan bill that would expand the controls parents have over how their children spend time online. And in California, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers introduced a bill modeled after British regulations, which require companies to design their products with children’s privacy in mind.

The increased focus on children’s safety online follows the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who used a trove of internal
company documents to spotlight the ways the company allegedly placed profits over safety. She was a source in a Wall Street Journal story last year that revealed that company-conducted research had found that Instagram was harming the mental health of teen girls. Those revelations have sparked broad scrutiny in Washington of the ways tech companies — including TikTok, YouTube and others — affect teens.

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The probe reflects mounting political pressure on major social media companies, and the more aggressive role state attorneys general’s offices are playing across the country in addressing the power of tech giants and their influence over consumers’ lives.

TikTok said it would provide regulators with information about the steps it has taken to protect the safety and privacy of teens.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users,” TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said in a statement.