As TikTok fights for its life in the West, and pundits sling mud at the app’s differing treatment of children at home and abroad – does any of it matter if it ultimately leads to better outcomes for young people using social media?
From Liz Truss’ tirade against TikTok as a “threat to children’s safety”, to American senator Richard Blumenthal’s concern that “TikTok’s policies and practices for children and teens are fundamentally different in the United States and China” – most politicians in the West have zeroed in on the Chinese video app more than any other in their fight back against social media’s vice like grip on their country’s youngest citizens.
Known for its viral dance videos and micro crazes – remember the Mannequin Challenge? – TikTok is now the biggest app in the world, with over a billion users who spend almost an hour a day scrolling.
So is the hysteria justified? Is China’s version of TikTok – better known as Douyin – really a watered-down app with greater protections in place for kids? And are those in the West simply escalating tensions with China every time the app is singled out?
There was certainly something ironic about the metaphor former Google employee Tristan Harris used to describe TikTok’s Chinese parent company Bytedance on an episode of 60 Minutes last year.
“It’s almost like they recognise that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world”, he told host Bill Whitaker.
The ‘spinach version’ he was referring to, of course, is Douyin, the original Chinese app launched into the local market in 2016 – a year before the internationalised version, TikTok, made its way onto the Apple and Android app stores.
Students of history familiar with the Opium Wars in China – when Britain attempted to address a trade imbalance by illegally flooding China with opium, creating millions of addicts in the process – will find the comparison between TikTok and the addictive drug a little too on the nose if they’re looking for reasons to call either side a hypocrite.
But the idea that children in China are fed content on Douyin that promotes everything from maths and science to athletic achievement rather than more frivolous content is true.
In September 2021, Bytedance announced it was making several changes to its algorithm and user interface in China, limiting children to just 40 minutes a day, introducing a Youth Mode for under 14s, and preventing the app being accessible to children between 10pm and 6am. The new policy also saw the company filter out any “inappropriate content” on the app, with a declaration that they would introduce new content such as science experiments, art exhibitions, nature and history to “inspire” youth, according to The Independent.
The moves followed a Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) crackdown just one month prior on “unhealthy fan culture” and a reminder to use algorithms to promote content that “adheres to mainstream values”. Bytedance, it seems, were left with no choice but to accelerate features that protected minors and watered-down gossipy content.
But one key difference that often gets overlooked is Douyin vs TikTok’s e-commerce capabilities. In 2022, Douyin generated 1.5 trillion RMB (over £175 billion) from e-commerce within the app, with 33% of its users below the age of 25. That’s a lot of click-happy teenage shoppers. Meanwhile, TikTok’s e-commerce capabilities have barely begun. It wasn’t until October last year that Axios reported the company had posted job adds relating to TikTok’s development of an international e-commerce fulfilment system to rival Amazon’s – meaning it will be a while yet before the West’s young people are sucked into the frictionless, in-app shopping experience that has been so successful in China.
Douyin and TikTok are entirely separate entities, but the discrepancies between them have still been the subject of much handwringing in the US, where even controversial US podcaster Joe Rogan seemed to speak with a degree of admiration at the way in which the Communist Party has successfully regulated companies like Bytedance.
“China’s version of TikTok celebrates academic achievements, athletic achievements… and at 10pm those kids are not allowed to get on it,” he told his interviewee in January 2022. “They’re doing all these things with this idea of engineering a society of more accomplished, more successful people. Whereas what are we doing? Kids are f*****g dancing and screaming about veganism. It’s wild.”
Though pushing propaganda or banning certain topics might be anathema to Western democratic governments – not to mention in breach of laws guarding free speech – the British government has made more headway than the US on regulating apps like TikTok for children.
In September 2021, The Age Appropriate Design Code – also known as the Children’s Code – came into effect in the UK, requiring companies to “put the best interests of the child first” when designing their apps or websites. Stipulations include defaulting to the highest level of privacy in settings if the user is thought to be a child; geolocation turned off; and a ban on using “nudge techniques” to encourage children to provide unnecessary personal data or turn off their privacy protections.
Nevertheless, earlier this month, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office fined TikTok £12.7 million – one of the largest ever issued – for illegally processing the data of 1.4 million children under the age of 13 who were using the platform without parental consent. The fine relates to a period in 2020, and Bytedance insists they have made significant changes to verify children’s ages since then.
Ultimately then, it seems that Bytedance behaves no differently when operating in China as Douyin as it does in the West as TikTok – or any of Silicon Valley’s biggest players for that matter: companies are reluctant to make changes before being required to by law.
And while more hawkish government ministers like Tom Tugendhat won’t rule out banning the app altogether, it’s more likely that regulations against TikTok and other social media companies’ less scrupulous practices will become increasingly effective as time passes. No matter who legislators’ ire is aimed at, young people may yet be better off in the long run as a result – and for now at least, get to keep dancing.