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The multitude of problems encompassing TikTok

Photo taken by Nordskov Media and used with Creative Commons License

“Mr. Chew, let me just ask you, your platform, why should your platform not be banned in the United States of America?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri when questioning the CEO of TikTok during a Senate Judiciary hearing on “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis” last month.

I was watching the video of a recent Senate committee hearing where Senators were questioning the CEO of TikTok, Mr. Shou Zi Chew, about his personal and his company’s ties to the Chinese government and several other issues including child safety and censorship. While I was watching the Senators go on and on in such a performative manner, a question struck me: is there not a more reasonable way of illustrating the dangers and problems that this app poses than to harangue the CEO in a committee hearing? I believe that it is necessary to share what some of these serious problems surrounding the social media application are. I want to highlight the specific issues of data security, and the effects on the attention span and the brain.

While I believe that all social media companies are guilty of taking advantage of their consumers by collecting excessive amounts of data that is unrelated to their usage of the website or application, TikTok has been one of the worst if not the worst. Their privacy policy lists all the different sorts of data that they collect; however, in this day and age, very few people take the time to sit and read the privacy policy of the applications they are downloading.

Several examples of the data they collect that are hidden deep within their privacy policy are: “app and file names and types, keystroke patterns or rhythms, battery state, audio settings and connected audio devices” according to TikTok’s privacy policy. Collecting these types of data provides the company with the ability to access sensitive information outside of the features of the application.

The second key component is that ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, is headquartered in Beijing, China. In order to operate social media sites within China, behind the “Great Firewall”, companies have to allow the Chinese government some control over their system to make sure it is in line with the standards set by the ruling government in China, which is led by the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. Since the United States and China have been geopolitical adversaries, much fuss has been made about the security of Americans’ data from TikTok being exploited for nefarious purposes.

In an attempt to address these concerns, TikTok has partnered with a company called Oracle, to build a 1.5 billion dollar data holding center where American’s data will be stored exclusively in the United States. The problem still lingers that ByteDance still has a limited capacity to view users’ data, which I think still presents a problem to American users and federal regulators. 

Ever since the merger of TikTok and the social media application in 2018, TikTok has seen exponential growth in the amount of new and consistent users having a meteoric rise to become the most downloaded app of 2022. A primary reason for this is the addictive quality of the main source of content on the application short form videos that suck users in and retain their interest. The system operates continuously so that once the user has finished watching the video, it automatically begins playing a stream of videos that are suggested by their algorithm, which do not stop unless actively paused.

 Over the years, there have been many claims about how technology has been dumbing down society and while most of that has been speculation at best there is quantifiable proof of the effect using TikTok has on the teenage mind. A 2019 study found that Chinese students aged between 15 through 19, using TikTok developed weaker memory performance skills and had lower working memory capacity, also referred to as attention span. Another study in 2021, found that TikTok had damaging consequences on young adults with self-control issues, and on those without such issues, it had lesser yet still prevalent effects. 

These studies show evidence that TikTok is not good for the brain because it has addictive properties that can cause a dependence on continual usage of the app and that the short form video content, which TikTok almost exclusively is made up of, is the most damaging type of content for those with and without attention span problems. 

Politicians, like Sen. Hawley who is mentioned above, are interfering with legitimate efforts to show the harmful downsides to the app by using the issue for the political purpose of furthering their agenda and their career. 

I believe that the U.S. Government should act swiftly and decisively to ban TikTok wholesale in the United States, not only on the grounds of national security interest, but also because it is proven to be detrimental to the wellbeing of our society. I also believe that social media companies should face far greater regulation in how they collect, store, and sell their consumers data. 

The responsibility is not only on the government to look out for the common good;  the people must also act in their best interest and get off social media. TikTok is not the only problematic social media company, it is simply the most scrutinized.

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