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Pa. AG Josh Shapiro Opens TikTok Probe, Joins Nationwide Investigation Into Effect On Kids' Health

WASHINGTON (AP/KDKA) — State attorneys general have launched a nationwide investigation into TikTok and its possible harmful effects on young users' mental health, widening government scrutiny of the wildly popular video platform.

The investigation was announced Wednesday by a number of states led by California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is joining in the probe.

"My job is to protect all Pennsylvanians, especially children, from online threats. Parents and children deserve to know the risks associated with these platforms. And if TikTok is found to have prioritized business growth over the physical and emotional well being of Pennsylvania's children, they will be held responsible for that," Shapiro said in a statement.

U.S. lawmakers and federal regulators have criticized TikTok, citing practices and computer-driven promotion of content they say can endanger the physical and mental health of young users. The platform has an estimated 1 billion monthly users and is especially popular with teens and younger children.

KDKA's Meghan Schiller asked an expert on media and youth to weigh in.

"I am glad that they're at least looking at the evidence, thinking about it, and then starting the process of figuring out: what do we need to do from here to protect young people, to protect parents and families and consumers?" said Dr. Brian Primack.

He just penned an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune with his 15-year-old daughter Sadie. He warns about letting big tech focus on more parental controls, saying it only pits parents against children.

"We cannot hang our hat on that because these are often very specifically designed to make it look like they're doing something but to know that what they're doing is really setting up a dynamic that is actually potentially going to hurt the relationship between a parent and a child," he said.

Kris Horvath, a mother of three from North Huntingdon, said she personally doesn't think social media negatively impacts her children's mental health, but she said, "You absolutely have to look into it."

"There's too many things, especially since COVID hit, where children are having a lot of mental health issues and the mental health system quite frankly is broken," said Horvath.

Her son, 16-year-old Troy Horvath, said he's personally not dealt with any mental health effects but knows it's a serious problem. He's a student at Norwin High School and uses TikTok to watch entertaining videos.

"Me and my friends don't really run into that issue, but I know it's a common occurrence," said Horvath. "I just personally think it's all in how you take it because there's always going to be stuff on social media that you will find offensive to you personally, but you just have to kind of let that roll off."

Last month, Texas opened an investigation into TikTok's alleged violations of children's privacy and facilitation of human trafficking.

"Our children are growing up in the age of social media — and many feel like they need to measure up to the filtered versions of reality that they see on their screens," California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a news release. "We know this takes a devastating toll on children's mental health and well-being."

Bonta said the investigation aims to determine if TikTok is violating the law in promoting its platform to young people.

Government officials and child-safety advocates maintain that TikTok's computer algorithms pushing video content to users can promote eating disorders and even self-harm and suicide to young viewers.

TikTok has said it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The company says it has tools in place, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see.

"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," the company said Wednesday. "We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens."

Early last year, after federal regulators ordered TikTok to disclose how its practices affect children and teenagers, the platform tightened its privacy practices for users under 18.

As its popularity has swelled, TikTok has come under a barrage of criticism from state officials, federal regulators, consumer advocates and lawmakers of both parties. Republicans have especially homed in on the company's ties to China. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.

"TikTok threatens the safety, mental health and well-being of our kids," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a hearing Tuesday.

Late last year a similar coalition of state attorneys general began an investigation into the Instagram photo-sharing platform, owned by Facebook parent Meta Platforms, and its effects on young people. The action came after former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen revealed internal company research showing apparent harm to some teen users of Instagram.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Joe Biden asked Congress to bolster privacy protections for children, including by banning advertising targeted at them and with measures aimed at reducing the promotion of content that contributes to addiction.

Critics of TikTok have pointed, for example, to incidents around the country that came to light last fall in which students vandalized school bathrooms and other equipment, and stole supplies — apparently in response to a viral TikTok challenge called "devious licks." Also last fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that teenage girls had been seeking medical care for the sudden onset of tics, such as jerky motions and verbal outbursts; doctors said TikTok videos on Tourette syndrome could be a factor.

(TM and © Copyright 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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