There’s a political storm swirling around big tech companies right now, and TikTok is in the eye of it. Being the world’s most downloaded app in 2022, you might say TikTok is the eye of it.
The US government wants to dictate the algorithm that determines which Pedro Pascal clips and Negroni Sbagliato recipes wash up on your FYP. Why? They’re (legitimately) worried about a couple of (actually very important) things: keeping young people safe, and data being used for international espionage.
Their problem? TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is in China. Not America, where US lawmakers would have more power over the platform—though the internet technology company does have headquarters in Singapore and Los Angeles.
President Biden’s team even threatened a nationwide ban if ByteDance doesn’t agree to sell the infamous app. TikTok says the worries are unfounded, based on no evidence, and the uproar is causing uncomfortable political ripples.
There’s another issue, too. The people who want more control over the internet, seem to know nothing about the internet. On 24 March 2023, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew got a grilling from US lawmakers who are terrified China’s government will manipulate data from American users. Trouble was, some of those lawmakers didn’t seem to have a basic understanding of WiFi, let alone in-depth knowledge regarding the most powerful artificial intelligence technology in existence.
This was gleefully pointed out in clips from Friday’s televised session in US Congress, going viral over the weekend—where else, but on TikTok?
One user rounded up some of the most, uh, interesting moments from Chew’s five and a half hours on the stand:
It’s not just the US who are panicking. The UK’s Houses of Parliament and the EU government are feeling threatened, too. All these bodies have banned TikTok from their team’s devices and networks, over security breach fears.
But TikTok’s take is that the bans are based on “fundamental misconceptions.” Chew insists that the app has never, and would never, honour a request from the Chinese government to share US data. That is, if one was ever made. The CEO says it’s unreasonable for America to crack down on the app when no threat to national security currently exists.
If you’d like to hear it from Chew’s mouth, here’s what TikTok’s CEO had to say about the whole thing:
To show it’s serious, ByteDance spent $2 billion on something called Project Texas—a partnership with cloud software group Oracle that put up a firewall to make sure US user data is protected from Chinese influence.
Project Clover will then follow in Europe, handing some approvals over to third parties. TikTok reminded US officials that American authorisation is needed every time they pass data through their servers. But the US doesn’t think it’s enough.
Chew named a big competitor to take the heat off TikTok, reminding the world of instances like Cambridge Analytica, where millions of Facebook users had personal data collected by the British consulting firm without their permission.
“With a lot of respect, American soil companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” Chew rebutted.
In the run-up to 2017, Myanmar military personnel used Facebook to spread misinformation and hate speech until they were eventually banned by the platform. Thousands of Rohingya Muslims were killed; with thousands of refugees eventually suing Facebook for £150 billion for failing to prevent the incitement of violence. In the UK, an Online Safety Bill might be amended to include possible prison sentences for social media bosses who don’t do enough to protect kids.
So there are plenty of good arguments for why moderation of content should be cranked up—but who or what technology should have that responsibility? Can you sue AI, if the tool moderates content too much or not enough?
Currently, tech platforms can (and do) moderate content however they want to, and are protected by a decades-old US law: Section 230, part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This was set up way back when the internet first exploded, to help platforms get off the ground without endless litigation. Changes to this could impact how the internet looks, and the way companies operate, forever.
At the moment, apps can hold their hands up and say ‘it wasn’t me’ if their users post dangerous content, but if Section 230’s protection dwindles, tech companies will face big problems.
How does this affect me, you’re probably wondering. Well, if the algorithm spits dangerous content onto your feed, and you share it, you are currently the ‘creator’ of that content. And you’re liable.
Then there’s the safety side of things. Whether apps are using our data or not, what has been proven is the link between social media usage and mental health problems. It’s easier than ever to buy drugs on TikTok. Young users can come across sexually explicit content and discussions. Google a salad recipe, and you might get served an ad for weight loss injections. Open Instagram, and within minutes it can feel like everyone in your life is on holiday or going out, having more fun than you. The internet is inherently depressing as much as it is useful and wonderful.
All that is taking its toll. Between 2010 and 2020, suicide among young people aged 10 to 19 years old went up by 45.5 per cent in the US. The same government agency that carried out this study found that one in three teenage girls had seriously considered taking their own life. Social media addiction gets a lot of the blame, because tech companies build them in ways that tempt us (and condition us) to use them constantly. Features like video autoplay are in question, which many argue should be stopped.
Would getting rid of TikTok actually help, at this point? Plenty of young people would find ways around it, and new apps would spring up. Perhaps a more sensible approach is to limit time spent on apps and increase time spent in the real world, interacting with other people.
Celine Bernhardt-Lanier and Emma Lembke agree with this notion, which is why they founded the LOG OFF movement in the summer of 2022. The group isn’t anti-social media, but instead wants to get people talking about how much they’re using it, how it makes them feel, and what we can do about its negative effects.
SCREENSHOT recently spoke with Claire Rowden, movies and social producer at MTV UK. Joining a movement like LOG OFF would be a tall order for her, being chronically online is part of her job. So, what does she think about a potential ban?
Rowden explained: “I’ve been on TikTok for three years, and so much of my experience has been positive, because I’m putting out positive content and I’m receiving positive responses.”
One of the aspects of the app that Rowden loves the most is its ability to platform people’s passions, and even provide the opportunity for anyone to go viral. “There are so many different sides to it—everyone has an equal opportunity for their content to be seen, which is why everyone loves it so much,” the producer stated.
Even more than this, Rowden values the community aspect of the video-sharing app: “TikTok has built so many communities through the app—people would be at a loss if they were taken away from them. If people want to be on social media, they’re going to be on social media. It’s that need for searching, that desire to find people who like what you like.”
She went on to add: “I personally learn so much from TikTok, there are so many different sides to it. [About] being neurodivergent for example, and particularly working in film. Being on #filmtok and having movies recommended to me. Even something as simple as #booktok has shown me so many novels I’d otherwise never have read. I have gained so much from the app.”
The producer of course also recognises the impact being fixated on social media can have on one’s mental health and general well-being. Rowden explained how she feels “50/50” on this topic. “I have found community, friends, and it’s helped me meet people in my industry that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s opened so many doors for me and it’s integral for working in the media. But it can negatively affect my mood.”
“A lot of the internet and social media is what you make it. If you’re not going online and spreading hate, then it is possible to avoid it. But like in all areas of life, there’s always going to be toxicity to watch out for. All in all, it’s a much-needed escape for a lot of people,” Rowden continued.
One thing the media expert definitely stands by, is that the US government has far more important issues to be tackling right now. “I think the people running the country should be focusing on stricter gun laws and giving women autonomy over their own bodies, rather than trying to force kids to stay off an app that (as much as any place on social media) can be toxic, but can also be life-changing.”
There’s no denying it, some US lawmakers want to see social platforms gone altogether (one likened TikTok to “a cancer, like Fentanyl, another China export, that causes addiction and death”). They want more protection and they want it now. How they’re going to get it, of course, still remains to be seen.
But, what can be said is that politicians should start working more closely with industry experts (that includes gen Z) who know what they’re dealing with, and can at least explain how WiFi works.
2020 has been a life-changing year for everyone, there is no arguing that. The pandemic reinforced an already existing reliance on technology, and for many of us, the amount of time we spend on our social media channels has had a worrying increase. 2020 will also forever be the year that made the video-sharing app TikTok skyrocket in popularity. As an app predominantly used by young people—the age limit currently stands at 13 years old, even though there have been accounts of much younger kids using its services—TikTok’s workforce highly relies on the youth. What kind of impact does the app have on the new generation’s mental health, and what is TikTok doing to protect its youngest users? Screen Shot spoke to TikTok creator @Doctor.Ryan to found out.
Before the pandemic, I didn’t really care for TikTok. Like so many people, I ended up downloading it in March at the very start of quarantine after being encouraged by my friends, as a way to distract myself from COVID-19 anxiety and intrusive thoughts about the uncertainty of our lives, and it worked. Fast forward today, it has become my most used app.
It would be naive to ignore TikTok’s influence on gen Z trends and culture, and just how determinative this year was to the app’s success. TikTok has had an immense influence over the music industry, it has played a role on how we view and interact with politics, it has even influenced fashion trends as well as our consumer habits (remember when everyone was making whipped coffee at the start of quarantine, or how at the start of summer, rollerblades were selling out everywhere? You have TikTok to thank that for).
As much as TikTok serves as a space that allows us, gen Zers, to consume and participate in all of these trends, this relationship is not one-sided; gen Zers make up for almost half of the app’s users, and the truth is, without the youth, TikTok would not be where it is today.
If you look at some of TikTok’s top content creators, one recurring similarity you will find is that they are all really young. Dixie D’Amelio is 19, Chase Hudson, aka @lilhuddy turned 18 earlier this year, Addison Rae has only turned 20 this October, and Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most-followed creator, is only 16. But another similarity these creators all share is just how quickly they have accumulated their fame on the app.
As glamorous and enchanting as fame can be, it also comes with its own side effects. Lack of boundaries and privacy invasion, constant public scrutiny, incessant media coverage and isolation are just a few examples of these, and they can all have an incredibly negative impact on someone’s mental health.
In many ways, these young TikTok stars share a strong resemblance with other child stars of the past, if not being the 2020 equivalent of them—think Disney Channel circa 2010, or Lindsay Lohan in the 2000s. Entering fame at a young age often means you miss out on some of the most formative and influential years of your life; childhood, and later, teenhood, which can have irreversible consequences on your mental state.
In addition to this, having your appearance (which is something that is constantly changing at that age) under constant speculation adds immense pressure. For instance, Demi Lovato, a pop singer and former Disney star has admitted that it is this pressure that led to her eating disorder and substance abuse.
Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner admitted to considering suicide as a result of being overwhelmed by her sudden fame at such a young age. Sadly, Lovato and Turner’s experiences are not unique, but are simply the reality for many young stars. So how is it any different for famous TikTokers? Well, it isn’t.
Ryan Luna, aka Future Doctor Ryan, is a gen Z TikTok creator and final year medical student going into psychiatry, whose viral content focuses on the intersection of popular culture and psychiatry. When asked the same question, Luna tells Screen Shot, “I think one big difference is that TikTokers have freedom of expression. So they’re making their own show. They’re not filling in someone else’s vision.”
Of course, one can argue that influencers, no matter their age, have freedom and control over their content: it is how they build their platforms in the first place (that is if they are not micromanaged by the talent or PR companies that sign them). With that logic in mind, nobody but themselves can be held accountable for their own actions—but what happens if you are a teen without much life experience?
“You can really mess up. That’s the one thing about a kid; you could do something that you totally regret and it’s out there forever,” explains Luna. Growing up in the spotlight often means that every single mistake, big or small, that you make will be televised, scrutinised, and dramatised. And let’s be honest here, you are bound to make one—we all do—but the difference between us and celebrities is that nobody is there to witness our downfall, cancel us for it, or worse, turn us into a meme.
“I think having fame can be a trauma in a way, as it can definitely stunt people,” continues Luna. Not only do TikTok stars have to face the basic hurdles of fame, but they experience this during an era of constant digital surveillance and cancel culture. When your entire career revolves around solely existing on social media, people often start believing that they are entitled to access every aspect of your life. If this access is what keeps you relevant and keeps your career going, you can only imagine what that can do to someone’s mental health.
Just last month, both of the D’Amelio sisters received major backlash following a video they posted as part of their YouTube series, Dinner with the D’Amelios. In case you don’t know what I am talking about, Charli, Dixie and their parents had dinner with beauty YouTuber and make-up artist James Charles, which was prepared by their personal chef. Dixie D’Amelio allegedly threw up the snail that she tried to eat while Charli asked if she could have dino nuggets instead, and mentioned that it would be “cool to hit 100 million followers.” This resulted in Charli losing over 500,000 followers (even though she has since surpassed her 100 million goal), and the internet and Trisha Paytas coming after them. Bear in mind that Paytas is double Charli’s age.
Both of the sisters should be held accountable for their actions, but cancelling them over this seems somewhat uncalled for. Cancel culture is unreasonable to begin with—but in this situation, the victims of it happen to be two young teenage girls. In an emotional Instagram Live, Charli professed “If this is the community that I’ve put myself in, I don’t know if I want to do that anymore.”
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The problem lies in the fact that TikTok benefits from the fame of people like Charli and Dixie. It benefits from any child or teenager using the app. According to Statista, as of June 2020, users aged 10 to 19 account for 32.5 per cent of TikTok users in the US alone. As a result, TikTok largely depends not only on the content consumed by this age group, but also made by. In many ways, it can be argued that the entire industry that relies on underage influencers, really just relies on child labour.
“I saw the evolution of technology, I was born in 1996, but there are kids that don’t have that,” explains Luna. “I think it really rewires people’s psychology. Like, how much access do you have to the internet? What are you looking at? How are you communicating? The thing is, platforms such as TikTok don’t really have any clear regulations set in place to protect the likes of Charli D’Amelio. And that is a cause for concern.”
Interestingly enough, sites such as YouTube have been monetising off younger influencers for far longer than TikTok even existed. Some of the most popular YouTube channels consist of family vloggers making content with the help of their children—children who are often too young to comprehend just how large their viewership numbers are.
“Have you ever deleted a picture of yourself on Facebook or something like that personally?” Luna asks me. “Imagine that that picture wasn’t just a picture. It was a video of your entire week log… and millions of people have seen it. Parents made a lot of money off of it and it can’t be deleted,” he explains.
Teenage TikTok stars at least made the conscious decision to appear on the internet, even if they weren’t fully aware of what they may be getting themselves into. Younger children such as toddlers and babies are unable to consent to this, which raises a huge ethical question. And these platforms benefit from all of this.
So what are the solutions? According to Luna, de-monetising the content of child influencers is one of them. Stronger regulations must certainly be put in place, and all social media platforms should definitely have educational resources available for all of their young content creators, whether they have 1 follower or 100 million.
But more than that, as internet users we should be a lot more empathetic. Yes, engaging in TikTok drama can be hard to resist but it is important for us to remember that behind the TikTok dances and trends, there are teenagers with real feelings and emotions. If we want to avoid another Britney Spears meltdown, we need to act now.