Banning TikTok is just the start to solving the problem
Social media is destroying our culture
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A groundbreaking report by BuzzFeed last month revealed significant national security concerns with TikTok, a Chinese-owned video hosting and social media app especially popular with teenagers. Many commentators are now calling for a ban on TikTok or at least much stricter data controls to prevent the Chinese government from potentially accessing millions of data points on Americans’ political views, shopping habits, and personal information that could be used to manipulate public opinion. These are important and necessary changes to protect our platforms from foreign influence, but they don’t do much to solve the bigger problem: social media’s destructive effect on our culture.
In some ways, the BuzzFeed report is a vindication of President Donald Trump’s concern about the app. Trump was heavily criticized in late 2020 for trying to restrict free speech after he attempted to use an executive order to ban TikTok from U.S. app stores. In summer 2021, President Joe Biden repealed and replaced Trump’s executive order, promising instead to “use a criteria-based decision framework and rigorous, evidence-based analysis” to evaluate the security threat from TikTok and other apps.
That analysis doesn’t seem to have gone very far, as the government still hasn’t taken any meaningful action over the last year. That left TikTok to continue its explosive growth (in 2022, it was the most-downloaded app in the United States by a wide margin, between one-third and one-half of Americans use the platform, and the average user spends 25 hours a month on the app). Last month’s BuzzFeed report, which revealed details from 80 internal TikTok meetings about how U.S. user data is repeatedly accessed in China, seems to have come amid a shift in public opinion. Even liberal New York Times columnist Ezra Klein recently concluded, “On this, Donald Trump was right, and the Biden administration should finish what he started.”
Given that federal employees are already prohibited from using TikTok due to security concerns (and even President Biden prohibited his campaign staff from using the app), it’s clear that our political leaders and many technology experts were already aware of the threat. It’s time to actually do something. Banning TikTok outright or requiring stricter controls around data access would at least serve as the first steps. Our government should ensure that foreign powers can’t influence the algorithms that decide what Americans read, watch, and hear.
However, these solutions are still only the first step in solving a much bigger social media problem. Even if the algorithms are free from foreign influence, they already play too large a role in who we talk to, what content we see, and how we think about each other. According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the tower of Babel is the best metaphor for what happened to America in the past decade, as social media weakened our institutions and left us “unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.” Study after study has shown that social media fuels polarization through echo chambers.
This environment is especially toxic for children. Increasing numbers of children as young as 8 years old use these platforms for hours every day, surrounded by a barrage of advertising, political arguments, and harassment that previous generations of children never experienced. (Though the platforms are technically supposed to be limited to those 13 and older, there is no real effort at age verification, nor any meaningful punishment for companies who turn a blind eye.)
Chris Griswold compares social media’s effect on children to the dangerous effects of child labor, arguing that we are long overdue in passing commonsense reforms. His solutions are a great starting point in recognizing and addressing this massive problem. We should prohibit users under 16 or 18 from accessing the platforms (and actually verify users’ ages), ban ads that target children, and prohibit images uploaded by children from amplification. “Perhaps nowhere in American society are children as unsupervised and unprotected, and with so much scope to do and be harmed, as in social media’s virtual environment,” argues Griswold.
That’s why Christian author Andy Crouch calls technology “Mammon,” a rival to God. “What technology wants is really what Mammon wants: a world of context-free, responsibility-free, dependence-free power measured out in fungible, storable units of value.” In his new book, The Life We’re Looking For: Reclaiming Relationship in a Technological World, Crouch highlights how our addiction to technology is destroying our ability to love selflessly and spend time caring for others without posting about it.
So yes, we should ban TikTok or at least prohibit China from accessing personal data. But let’s not pretend that this will solve the bigger problem. Social media, even without foreign influence, is destroying our culture—and we need to do more if we want to stop it.
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