Should the U.S. government ban TikTok?

Should the U.S. government ban TikTok from the phones of private U.S. citizens? You might be surprised by some of the voices who are either open to the idea or inching toward it. (You will probably not be the least bit surprised to know which members of Congress still have TikTok on their phones.) The question of how to respond to the threat TikTok presents — both geopolitically and morally — is going to set conservatives’ impulse to protect and the impulse to let adults make their own decisions in conflict. TikTok may well be so harmful, and so potentially dangerous, that the federal government must step in and say to tens of millions of Americans, “No, you’re not allowed to have this.”

The Clock Is Ticking on TikTok

Should the U.S. government ban TikTok from the phones of private U.S. citizens?

The U.S. has 113 million active TikTok users ages 18 and above, and a 2022 Pew Research Center survey of American teenagers ages 13 to 17 found that 67 percent say they use the app, which would add up to about 17.4 million teenagers.

The app is already banned from devices owned and operated by the federal government.

A bipartisan Senate bill that will be introduced today aims to “give the president the authority to respond to threats posed by TikTok and companies like it.” A separate Senate bill, cosponsored by Maine independent senator Angus King and Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio, would ban the app outright; TikTok would be allowed to continue to operate if the company relocated or were sold to a friendly nation. Twenty states have banned TikTok from state-owned devices — mostly red states.

And yet, “At least 32 members of Congress — all Democrats and one independent — as of early January had TikTok accounts, according to a review by States Newsroom. . . . At least half either currently sit or have previously served on committees dealing with foreign affairs, the U.S. military, investigations and national security.” As of this morning, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, Michigan representative Rashida Tlaib, and New York representative Jamaal Bowman still have Tik Tok accounts, among others. New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appears to have pulled her content.

Way to go, members of Congress. This thing is too dangerous to carry into the Pentagon, but you’re keeping it on your personal phone because you’re afraid you might miss the latest dance craze that’s going viral. And if the last three years of our lives have taught us anything, hasn’t it been that anything that comes to us from China and “goes viral” probably isn’t good for us?

Back in 2021, the Wall Street Journal published a terrifying exposé about how its reporters logged into TikTok as underage users, and were gradually exposed to more and more sexual material, outright pornography, and drug-related content:

TikTok served one account registered as a 13-year-old at least 569 videos about drug use, references to cocaine and meth addiction, and promotional videos for online sales of drug products and paraphernalia. Hundreds of similar videos appeared in the feeds of the Journal’s other minor accounts.

TikTok also showed the Journal’s teenage users more than 100 videos from accounts recommending paid pornography sites and sex shops. Thousands of others were from creators who labeled their content as for adults only.

Still others encouraged eating disorders and glorified alcohol, including depictions of drinking and driving and of drinking games.

This led to strong suspicions that the TikTok algorithm aims to steer people toward salacious content, because the numbers indicate that keeps the user’s attention the longest. Oh, by the way, apparently the Chinese version of TikTok shows kids completely different material — wholesome, educational material. You can’t find the sex and drugs on the Chinese version.

Tristan Harris, co-founder of Center for Humane Technology, said this when speaking to 60 Minutes last fall:

In their version of TikTok, if you’re under 14 years old they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos, and they also limit it to only 40 minutes per day. Now they don’t ship that version of TikTok to the rest of the world so it’s almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.

He also pointed to a 2019 survey in which 56 percent of Chinese children ages eight to twelve said they wanted to be an astronaut when they grow up, while the most common answer among U.S. kids that age was “video blogger or Youtuber,” at 29 percent.

This isn’t just another app; this is effectively a state-run Chinese company deliberately trying to mess up the minds of our teenagers. And by golly, that’s not Xi Jinping’s job! We American parents can mess up the minds of our teenagers just fine on our own.

Then there was this assessment, published by Forbes:

It’s “the digital equivalent of going down the street to a strip club filled with 15-year-olds,” says Leah Plunkett, an assistant dean at Harvard Law School and faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, focused on youth and media. Imagine a local joint putting a bunch of minors on a stage before a live adult audience that is actively giving them money to perform whatever G, PG or PG-13 activities they request, she said. “That is sexual exploitation. But that’s exactly what TikTok is doing here.”

If law-enforcement authorities knew about a strip club filled with 15-year-olds, they would shut it down immediately. Why would anyone in authority shrug off a digital equivalent?

This is thorny topic, sorting through the competing desire to protect teens and unsuspecting or naïve citizens against the libertarian instincts to leave citizens free to make their own choices.

Ordinarily, if you declare, “This app is Chinese spyware and will vacuum up all of your personal data and put it where the Chinese government can use it as it wishes,” you might expect people to stop using it. We might think the revelation that TikTok is Chinese spyware and that it is exposing minors to inappropriate sexual material and exploiting teens would be sufficient to get people to ditch and uninstall the app. You would think one of those problems would be enough.

And yet, TikTok is just getting more and more popular:

TikTok use eclipsed that of YouTube two years ago and has continued to grow faster than the Google-owned video sharing platform, particularly among US adults in their prime earning years, the report indicated.

“The amount of time US adult TikTok users spend on the app is rising quickly,” the market tracker said in the report.

“It’s well ahead of YouTube user time and closing the gap with Netflix.”

TikTok is proving particularly addictive for US adults ranging from age 25 to 54 years old, according to Insider Intelligence.

US adult users will spend an average of nearly 56 minutes per day on TikTok this year, six minutes less than the time spent watching Netflix, the market tracker forecast.

“TikTok is a huge reason for the sustained growth in overall time spent with social networks since the pandemic,” the report said.

“TikTok users ages 18 to 24 are watching the equivalent of a full-length comedy movie on the app every day.”

Think about all the people who loudly announced they were no longer going to use Facebook, because those users believed the country didn’t do enough to stop Russian disinformation efforts during the 2016 presidential election . . . and who then turned around and installed what is basically an extension of the Chinese Ministry of State Security onto their cellphones that they carry with them everywhere.

Clearly, in TikTok users, we’re dealing with at least two demographics that are notoriously irresponsible, careless, and barely capable of understanding the long-term consequences of their actions: teenagers and Democratic members of Congress.

Is it possible that an app can be so harmful, and so potentially dangerous, that the government can step in and say to the citizenry, “No, you’re not allowed to have this”?

If you’re a parent of a teenager, you may recognize this short description of contagious idiocy from Gurwinder’s substack, The Prism:

A more common way TikTok promotes irrational behavior is with viral trends and “challenges,” where people engage in a specific act of idiocy in the hope it’ll make them TikTok-famous. Acts include licking toilets, snorting suntan lotion, eating chicken cooked in NyQuil, and stealing cars. One challenge, known as “devious licks”, encourages kids to vandalize property, while the “blackout challenge,” in which kids purposefully choke themselves with household items, has even led to several deaths, including a little girl a few days ago.

Apparently making milkshakes in toilets became a trend on TikTok. Right now, I don’t want to ban TikTok; I want to take off and nuke the site from orbit, because it’s the only way to be sure.

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