California Attorney General Rob Bonta, along with the state attorneys general of seven other states launched an investigation Wednesday into the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok into what physical and mental harm the app is doing to children and young adults.
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TikTok has faced scrutiny on multiple fronts since the late 2010’s. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban TikTok from the United States due to possible national security threat risks. While federal judges ruled against the order only hours before the ban was to go into effect in September 2020, and the order was later rescinded by President Joe Biden the next year, Biden also began investigations into the app via the Department of Commerce for both national security and personal data risks.
In California, Attorney General Bonta has ramped up investigations into social media and video-sharing apps and sites since being sworn in in April of 2021. This has included looking into Meta sites like Facebook and Instagram for similar physical and mental harms, as well as company conduct and public risk factors.
According to the press release from Bonta’s office, the TikTok investigation will “look into the harms using TikTok can cause 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 strategies or efforts to increase the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.”
California, along with Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont will be conducting investigations, along with any other state who wishes to join the now 8-state group. Bonta reiterated what the investigation was looking into in a statement on Wednesday.
“Our children are growing up in the age of social media – and many feel like they need to measure up to the filtered versions of reality that they see on their screens,” explained Attorney General Bonta. “We know this takes a devastating toll on children’s mental health and well-being. But we don’t know what social media companies knew about these harms and when. Our nationwide investigation will allow us to get much-needed answers and determine if TikTok is violating the law in promoting its platform to young Californians.”
Digital media experts noted on Wednesday that the announcement from the Attorney Generals would only add pressure to TikTok.
“TikTok is being used as a punching bag right now for ‘what is wrong with our youth,'” said Gabe Hanson, a young adult technology researcher, to the Globe on Wednesday. “But this happens with every generation. Millennials had social media scrutiny, Gen X was video games and cable TV and internet, baby boomers had TV. Look far back enough, and you’ll see radio complaints. Each one of these technologies went through what apps are going through right now and came out of it with new regulations to help corral it in some way, as well as finding and mitigating any dangers that popped up. That’s what is happening with TikTok right now, but with the added part of it being a possible security threat. So we can see.”
Announcements on how the investigation is proceeding are expected later this year.