US state sues TikTok, alleging app knowingly gets children hooked on harmful content
Utah sued TikTok on Tuesday, saying it knowingly uses technology to keep children engaged with material that is often harmful.
"The harms to children need to stop," Gov. Spencer Cox said as he announced the suit at a news conference.
The consumer protection lawsuit, filed in Salt Lake City state court, says TikTok uses technology that aims to keep children on the app despite known mental health harms that correlate to time spent engaging with social media.
Utah has accused the app, based in Culver City, California, of using algorithms to target children with content that is sometimes violent and distressing through its "recommendation engine" to keep them looking at the app.
The company rejects Utah's allegations.
"TikTok has industry-leading safeguards for young people, including an automatic 60-minute time limit for users under 18 and parental controls for teen accounts," a spokesperson for the app said. "We will continue to work to keep our community safe by tackling industry-wide challenges."
In March, amid lawmakers' efforts to ban it, company CEO Shou Zi Chew told Congress that TikTok is safe and secure for teenagers. At the time, it reached 150 million active U.S. users — nearly half the population. Its ad revenue last year was nearly $10 billion, according to Utah's suit.
At Tuesday's news conference, state Attorney General Sean Reyes likened TikTok to "a slot machine that hooks kids' attention and does not let them go."
Among the technology it deploys is "infinite scroll," which provides fresh videos targeted at a particular user, the suit claims. Another tool is "filter bubbles" that feed a user more extreme reels of the types of videos that pique their interest, it alleges.
"TikTok directly profited from addicting children to the app and continued to capitalize on the addictive nature of the app despite knowing the harm that addiction would cause Utah’s children," the suit says.
Utah has the highest percentage of children per capita in the country, more than 1 in 4 people, the attorney general's office said. Nearly 80% of the state's K-12 students spend two or more hours every day on screens, not counting learning engagement at school or for homework, it said in the suit.
In the lawsuit, Utah also alleges that claims TikTok fails to verify users' ages, does not remove all child abuse sexual material or clips dealing with self-harm and eating disorders, fails to adequately address negative mental health effects associated with teens' use of social media, does not adequately screen out child predators, fails to rein in dangerous video challenges involving asphyxiation and bone-breaking and lies to the public about its commitment to protect children and about its ties to China, where the app originated in 2017.
"TikTok has lied to parents to create a false sense of security," Reyes said.
Some of the company's actions or lack of action amount to violations of the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act, the suit claims.
It seeks corrective action and damages "well in excess of $300,000," according to the court filing.
Other states, including Arkansas and Indiana, have also sued TikTok with similar allegations. Montana was the first state to ban it; creators and the app have challenged the move.