Iowa joins probe of TikTok’s impact on youth mental health

August 8, 2023 – Iowa has joined other state attorneys general as part of an investigation into the social media company TikTok and its possible harmful effects on young users’ mental health.

The five-member Iowa Executive Council — comprised of the governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, secretary of agriculture and state auditor — unanimously agreed this week on granting a request from Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird’s office to bring in special counsel to help the office in its investigation into and possible litigation against the wildly popular video platform and its “potential negligent, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful provision of products and services to minors.”

Several states are investigating TikTok over whether it violated state consumer protection laws. The investigation has focused on the harm social media usage causes to young users, what TikTok knows about those harms, the techniques used by TikTok to boost young user engagement — including increasing the duration of time spent on the platform — and the frequency of engagement with TikTok.

Government officials and child-safety advocates have cited TikTok’s practices and computer-driven promotion of content they say can endanger the physical and mental health of young users, such as video content that promote eating disorders, self-harm and suicide. U.S. lawmakers this spring grilled TikTok Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew about data security and harmful content, with some pushing to ban the app.

The platform has more than 150 million American users.

The Iowa Executive Council granted the Attorney General’s request to bring in the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Cooper & Kirk, which is representing five states in their investigation into TikTok. Litigation is underway in Indiana and Arkansas.

The law firm also represented Florida in the state’s defense of its Stop W.O.K.E Act, which prohibits public schools and universities from enabling frank discussions about the nation’s racial history in classrooms, and in a lawsuit by Walt Disney Co. against a Florida tourism board and Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis alleging retaliation against Disney after it opposed a new state law restricting instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.

Cooper also represented former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Justice Department’s investigations into Russian election interference.

Chief Deputy Iowa Attorney General Sam Langholz, in his request, wrote the law firm was instrumental in developing those five states’ legal arguments of consumer fraud arising from TikTok’s representations about its content and the privacy of user data.

The firm will be paid based on contingency, where attorneys will get paid only if the state recovers compensation. Should the state not receive any money through litigation, it will not be required to pay the attorneys, according to state officials.

“Because of the nature of the alleged misconduct, the magnitude of the recovery effort, and the anticipated aggressive defense by the Defendants, the Attorney General has determined that it is necessary and appropriate to retain private Special Counsel to assist her Office in the representation of the State of Iowa to continue such investigation and pursue potential litigation and recovery on a contingency fee basis,” Langholz wrote.

TikTok is a wholly owned subsidiary of Beijing-based parent company ByteDance. Attempts Tuesday to reach a TikTok representative for comment were unsuccessful.

In response to an investigation by Texas last year into TikTok’s alleged violations of children’s privacy and facilitation of human trafficking, the company told CBS News 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, and disables direct messaging for young users.

“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 told CBS News.

Lawmakers pursue social media restrictions for teens

State lawmakers this year advanced, but failed to approve, limits on social media platforms for teens. Iowa teens would have been prohibited from using social media platforms without explicit approval from a parent or guardian under a measure that advance out of a House committee but failed to make it to the House floor.

The bill would prohibit companies from collecting data on children under 18 without “verifiable parental consent.” That includes providing information required to create a profile on sites like TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.

Similar age limitations for tech platforms signed into law in Arkansas and Utah have raised questions about the privacy and First Amendment rights of young Americans. Critics worry restricting children’s access to social media restricts their access to supportive communities. Some children, like LGBTQ teens, may find a sense of belonging online they may not find in their physical communities, they said.

Rep. John Wills, a Republican from Spirit Lake and the bill’s floor manager, said lawmakers plan to revisit the issue next session.

By Tom Barton, The Gazette
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