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Collective of US states investigate TikTok’s impact on children

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Collective of US states investigate TikTok's impact on children

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Glenn CHAPMAN

A consortium of US states announced on Wednesday a joint investigation into TikTok’s possible harms to young users of the platform, which has boomed in popularity especially among children.

Officials across the United States have launched their own probes and lawsuits against Big Tech giants as the national government has failed to pass new regulations due in part to partisan gridlock.

The consortium of eight states will look into the harms TikTok can cause to its young users and what the company knew about those possible harms, said a statement from California attorney general Rob Bonta.

Leading the investigation is a coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont.

The investigation focuses, among other things, on TikTok’s techniques to boost young user engagement, including efforts to increase the frequency and duration of children’s use.

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“We don’t know what social media companies knew about these harms and when,” Bonta said in a statement.

“Our nationwide investigation will allow us to get much-needed answers and determine if TikTok is violating the law in promoting its platform to young Californians,” he added.

TikTok’s short-form videos have boomed in popularity with the youngest users, prompting growing concern from parents over the potential their children could develop unhealthy use habits or be exposed to harmful content.

– Series of probes and lawsuits –

The platform welcomed the investigation as a chance to be provide information on its efforts to protect users.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community,” TikTok’s statement said.

“We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens,” it added.

Social media’s impact on young users came under renewed scrutiny last year when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a trove of internal company documents raising questions over whether it had prioritized growth over users safety.

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The documents were given to lawmakers, a consortium of journalists and US regulators by Haugen, who has become a figurehead of criticism of the leading social media platform.

While the rush of media attention on the issue and hearings before US lawmakers, no new rules have drawn close to being enacted on the national level.

States have instead proceeded with their own efforts to look into Big Tech companies, but also lawsuits seeking to force the firms to make changes on matters such as privacy protection.

For example, a consortium of US states announced a joint probe in November of Instagram’s parent company Meta for promoting the app to children despite allegedly knowing its potential for harm.

The consortium of attorneys general — states’ top law enforcers and legal advisors — included some of the same states as Wednesday’s probe like California, Florida.

Instagram sparked fierce criticism for its plans to make a version of the photo-sharing app for younger users, but later halted development.

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UK teen died after ‘negative effects of online content’: coroner

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Molly Russell was exposed to online material 'that may have influenced her in a negative way'

Molly Russell was exposed to online material ‘that may have influenced her in a negative way’ – Copyright POOL/AFP/File Philip FONG

A 14-year-old British girl died from an act of self harm while suffering from the “negative effects of online content”, a coroner said Friday in a case that shone a spotlight on social media companies.

Molly Russell was “exposed to material that may have influenced her in a negative way and, in addition, what had started as a depression had become a more serious depressive illness,” Andrew Walker ruled at North London Coroner’s Court.

The teenager “died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression”, he said, but added it would not be “safe” to conclude it was suicide.

Some of the content she viewed was “particularly graphic” and “normalised her condition,” said Walker.

Russell, from Harrow in northwest London, died in November 2017, leading her family to set up a campaign highlighting the dangers of social media.

“There are too many others similarly affected right now,” her father Ian Russell said after the ruling.

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“At this point, I just want to say however dark it seems, there is always hope.

“I hope that this will be an important step in bringing about much needed change,” he added.

The week-long hearing became heated when the family’s lawyer, Oliver Sanders, took an Instagram executive to task.

A visibly angry Sanders asked Elizabeth Lagone, the head of health and wellbeing at Meta, Instagram’s parent company, why the platform allowed children to use it when it was “allowing people to put potentially harmful content on it”.

“You are not a parent, you are just a business in America. You have no right to do that. The children who are opening these accounts don’t have the capacity to consent to this,” he said.

Lagone apologised after being shown footage, viewed by Russell, that “violated our policies”.

Of the 16,300 posts Russell saved, shared or liked on Instagram in the six-month period before her death, 2,100 related to depression, self-harm or suicide, the inquest heard.

Children’s charity NSPCC said the ruling “must be a turning point”.

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“Tech companies must be held accountable when they don’t make children’s safety a priority,” tweeted the charity.

“This must be a turning point,” it added, stressing that any delay to a government bill dealing with online safety “would be inconceivable to parents”.

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