State AGs are investigating TikTok's impact on children

It's an expansion of an Instagram probe they opened in November.

Dado Ruvic / reuters

A group of state attorneys general is investigating TikTok. They're seeking information to determine if and how the service increases the risks of online harm to children. It's an expansion of a probe the AGs opened into Instagram in November concerning the effect of that app's on teens. Specifically, the prosecutors are looking into whether TikTok and Instagram put the public at risk and if they broke state consumer protection laws.

A bipartisan group of eight AGs from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont is leading the probe, as The Wall Street Journal reports. AGs from several other states have joined them.

“Today, attorneys general across the nation joined an investigation into TikTok for providing and promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while use is associated with physical and mental health harms,” the AGs said in a statement. "The investigation will look into the harms such usage causes to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms."

Among other things, the coalition will look into the ways TikTok tries to boost engagement among young users, including the "frequency of engagement" with the platform and how long kids spend using it.

"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," a TikTok spokesperson told Engadget. "We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens."

The spokesperson noted that TikTok limits some features by age, offers parents tools and resources and builds the wellbeing of younger users into its policies. The Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million in 2019 over reported violations of child privacy rules.

The Instagram probe followed the publication of an investigation by The Journal based on leaked internal research from Instagram parent Meta. According to the report, the data suggested using Instagram was linked to an increased risk of mental and physical health harms to teens.

The prosecutors are investigating Meta "for providing and promoting the social media platform Instagram to children and young adults despite knowing that such use is associated with physical and mental health harms." Meta said at the time that the accusations were "false" and that AGs showed "a deep misunderstanding of the facts." Around that time, the company halted work on a version of Instagram for kids.

At the State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden urged Congress to "ban targeted advertising to children" and called on tech companies to "stop collecting personal data on our children." Last month, two bipartisan Senators introduced a bill that seeks to instruct the Federal Trade Commission to look into ways of reducing "the harm of algorithmic amplification and social media addiction."

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