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Investigation into TikTok looks at impacts on youth mental health

Social Media-Data Privacy
Posted at 12:57 PM, Jun 30, 2022

A group of attorneys general from across the country have investigated if the app TikTok violates state consumer protection laws.

“I think as parents, we need to be careful about what we show our children,” Mandi Kimball said.

As a parent of two kids, Kimball constantly evaluates how her kids use technology and social media apps.

“The number one rule is let me know if you're on social media,” Kimball said, "so that I can make sure we’re friends and I can help follow.”

She sees how social media apps like TikTok can impact young people.

“It’s really concerning how it encourages certain behavior,” Kimball said.

TikTok has been in the spotlight recently as attorneys general from at least eight states launched an investigation into whether the app violates consumer protection laws.

The video-focused app isn’t the only one to come under fire. Last year, an investigation into Instagram looked at the harms among young people of extended engagement.

“There's a lot of belief that it’s an addiction. It does not fit the addiction model very well. It better fits binge eating disorder in the sense that its overuse of a necessary resource,” Dr. Michael Rich, founding director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, said.

The lab looks at the effects of screens on kids’ lives. He believes social media – especially Tik Tok’s algorithm – wasn’t made with kids' best interests.

“Really, the algorithm is built for selling things, advertising things. In the context of health, it can actually be selling poor health or poor beliefs about health,” Rich said.

Some child safety advocates say TikTok’s algorithms can inadvertently promote topics like self-harm and eating disorders to young users. While many social media apps use algorithms to encourage participation, Rich said TikTok videos don’t always present the safest information. The National Association of Attorneys General alleges TikTok is not offering proper parental controls on the platform.

“Social media is financially incentivized,” Kimball said.

For kids, this can be incredibly impactful.

“They are at a stage in their life where they are still developing their identities,” Rich said. “They’re still a decade or more away from fully developing executive function like impulse control.”

The algorithm TikTok uses is often in the spotlight. Rich said we need to think about what this screen time is doing to kids on a more significant level.

“We are still caught up in the, if only we can stop this, everything will be OK. So, it's been a process like whack a mole where we’re trying to fix TikTok one day and fix Facebook the next day,” Rich said. “Rather than saying how can we interface effectively and in healthy ways with the screens that are in our lives.”

He said the goal is self-regulation and harnessing the engagement for good. Licensed family therapist Mariam Wahby said there are some steps parents can take to help, too.

“Similar to dessert maybe, or anything else that we think doesn't totally serve them, we put limits. We teach about it and give them a lot of education on balance,” Wahby said. “A tough pill for parents to swallow sometimes is being a good model of that.”

For parents like Kimball, she focuses on handling apps responsibly. Her 13-year-old son makes his own decisions.

“Truly, he doesn't want TikTok because he sees the influence it can have on his friends, and that's telling,” she said.