CV NEWS FEED // The wildly popular social video app TikTok pushes content about harmful things like suicidality and eating disorders into teenagers’ feeds every 39 seconds, say the authors of a recent study entitled “Deadly by Design” from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
TikTok uses a sophisticated algorithm that tracks users’ likes, locations, time spent watching specific videos, and other personal information to determine what videos to “feed” each user.
More than two-thirds of American teenagers use TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center. Sixteen percent of teens say they are on it “almost constantly.”
Hours a day watching harmful content hurts teens physically, socially, and psychologically. Doctors have blamed TikTok for a sharp rise in eating disorders among teenaged girls, who, before TikTok, only rarely suffered from such disorders.
In a health advisory released this week, the American Psychological Association advises parents to look for these warning signs as their teenagers use social media:
- a tendency to use social media even when adolescents want to stop, or realize it is interfering with necessary tasks
- spending excessive effort to ensure continuous access to social media
- strong cravings to use social media, or disruptions in other activities from missing social media use too much
- repeatedly spending more time on social media than intended
- lying or deceptive behavior to retain access to social media use
- loss or disruption of significant relationships or educational opportunities because of media use
TikTok says it has a team of more than 40,000 employees who moderate content. In the last three months of 2022, they removed about 85 million posts deemed in violation of the company’s community guidelines, 2.8% of which were related to self-harm, suicide, and eating disorders.
Critics say TikTok’s algorithms are to blame. All social media apps rely on algorithms, which are a form of Artifical Intelligence (AI), to manipulate users into spending more time on the apps.
Referring to TikTok’s AI-based algorithms, former Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot says, “We’re training them, and they’re training us.” Chaslot is the founder of AlgoTransparency, a group that exists “to raise awareness on the impact of algorithms.”
“The real objective of the algorithm is to maximize watch time. This leads it to favor sensationalist content and clickbait,” the AlgoTransparency website states. “At scale, the world has seen this algorithmic bias amplify disinformation, polarize the public debate, and promote harmful content.”
In addition to harming millions of teenagers, both state and federal agencies have expressed concern that TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., is illegally spying on Americans through the app. ByteDance is owned by the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. government has argued that the Chinese presence in America via TikTok poses a national security threat.
The Biden administration says TikTok will face an outright ban in the U.S. if its Chinese owners do not sell their stakes in the video-sharing social media app.
In March, TikTok CEO Shou Chew insisted U.S. lawmakers had nothing to worry about:
The Chinese government has actually never asked us for U.S. user data…and we’ve said this on the record, that even if we were asked for that, we will not provide that … all U.S. user data is stored, by default, in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure … access to that data is completely controlled by U.S. personnel.
In an opinion piece this week published in the Wall Street Journal, Julie Jargon recommends ways parents can protect their teens from TikTok’s harmful effects. She suggests setting up “family pairing” as well as filters.
Another way parents can protect their children: don’t give them access to harmful products created by nefarious actors until they’re mature enough to protect themselves.