TikTok Gauntlet: Can Congress Regulate Tech, Protect Youth Mental Health?

The threat of regulation has prompted TikTok to launch an extensive lobbying campaign to avert a ban, while lawmakers are split on how to move forward. Some see the app as a perilous influence on young people, while others worry blocking it could anger millions of voters.

The app is popular among young people, with some using it to earn a living. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, a former tech executive, has tried to push his colleagues to regulate the industry and supported the TikTok ban, citing the app's "enormous influence" on young people. However, the legislation is facing hurdles in the Senate, with Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, calling for hearings first and suggesting the bill may need to be rewritten.

Other factors complicate the issue, as the issues around TikTok don't fall cleanly along partisan lines, making it harder for lawmakers to agree on priorities and how to write the legislation. The tech industry has also roundly opposed the bill, claiming it would stifle free expression and violate constitutional rights.

Mental health experts warn that social media can negatively impact Gen Z's mental health, leading to increased isolation, body image concerns, and fear of missing out. On the other hand, social media platforms help maintain personal connections and provide a platform for self-expression.

Researchers are still learning how social media affects people's overall well-being, especially young people. As many as 95% of teens ages 13 to 17 use social media, with at least 35% spending more than two hours a day on it, per McKinsey. Gen Zers in Europe and Oceania reported the highest rates of social media negatively impacting their mental health, while those in Asia reported the lowest.

Gen Zers are more vocal about their dissatisfaction with social media and technology, but they still spend more time on social media than any other cohort. Nearly 3 in 5 spend at least one to two hours a day on social media, and 35% spend over two hours, compared to 44% of millennials and 24% of Gen Zers spending over two hours on social media daily.

Lawmakers have taken up the cause of protecting children on social media, but courts have overturned some laws on First Amendment grounds, citing people's right to information regardless of age. In February 2024, a federal court blocked Ohio's Social Media Parental Notification Act, which mandated social media platforms get parental permission before creating accounts for users under 16.

Other states have tried to pass similar laws but have faced similar court battles. Social media companies have suggested that a federal law may be easier to comply with than various state laws, but Congress may face a similar fate with the proposed measures.

The "Kids Online Safety Act," introduced in Congress in January 2024, includes measures on minors' privacy and safety and requires social media companies to prevent harm to youth. However, First Amendment rights may make it an uphill battle.

The extensive lobbying campaign by TikTok is the latest attempt by the tech industry to head off legislation, and it's a fight the industry usually wins. For years, Congress failed to act on bills that would protect users' privacy, protect children from online threats, make companies more liable for their content, and put loose guardrails around artificial intelligence, among other things.

Some see the TikTok ban as the best chance for now to regulate the tech industry and set a precedent, but it's running into roadblocks in the Senate. Others worry that blocking TikTok could anger millions of young people who use the app, a crucial segment of voters in November's election.

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