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Utah’s lawsuit against TikTok contains startling allegations

New court documents allege TikTok knows its app can ‘trigger habit-forming behaviors’ that harm teens’ mental health, and inhibits users’ agency through a ‘slot machine’ effect

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Newly released documents from Utah’s lawsuit against TikTok include startling allegations that the company knew its app is habit forming in a way that can harm teens mental health. They also allege TikTok sends notifications to teens in the middle of the night, interfering with their sleep.

The documents are part of Utah’s lawsuit against TikTok and were released Thursday. The court documents are still partially redacted.

Giving a sense of the app’s popularity among children, the lawsuit claims that “almost a quarter of all children using the TikTok app are spending the equivalent of half of their school day on the app every day.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office originally filed the suit in the 3rd Judicial District Court in Salt Lake County on Oct. 10, 2023, on behalf of the state’s Division of Consumer Protection.

“At that time, the state was not allowed to detail its allegations about TikTok’s strategies to addict kids with carefully crafted designs that mimic a slot machine, while enjoying a market penetration of under age 18 users of 95%,” a release from the attorney general’s office stated.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Previously, TikTok spokesperson Alex Haurek told The Associated Press, “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. We will continue to work to keep our community safe by tackling industry-wide challenges.”

“(This) filing represents a significant win for the State of Utah in its case against TikTok,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a release. “The public will have a full and unobstructed view of the most serious allegations in our complaint. Now, Utahns can better understand why we acted so quickly and decisively to try and stop the harms our youth face on social media. 

“We feel strongly that TikTok has prioritized profit and greed far above the well-being and safety of our kids. Our commitment is to continue the state’s investigation and multifaceted litigation to put an end to these harms and provide some relief to Utah children,” Reyes continued.

Allegations around children’s usage of the app

Utah’s suit against TikTok alleges that TikTok’s own data shows that children between the ages of 13 and 17 check the app around 17 times a day and average two hours on the app daily. “TikTok is also aware that more than 20% of children are active on its app late at night (between midnight and 5 a.m.), when they should be sleeping.”

On mental health, the suit alleges that TikTok is aware of negative mental health impacts the app may contribute to like “loss of analytical skills, memory formation, contextual thinking, conversational depth, empathy, and increased anxiety.” The suit also claims, “In an internal digital well-being product safety report, TikTok has also admitted that the design of its application can trigger habit-forming behaviors that harm mental health.”

The suit also describes just how popular the app has become, “internal documents reveal that TikTok’s success among U.S. users under the age of 18 has been incredibly successful — reaching a market penetration of 95%.”

Claims about how TikTok’s recommendation function works are also now clarified in the newly released suit. The function called the “Recommendation Engine” is alleged to narrow “results down from millions of videos to just eight” by predicting what a user will watch and continuously improving the way it makes those predictions.

The suit alleges that this feature creates an attachment to the app. “By finding videos a user is most likely to watch to the end, like, or comment on, the engine keeps them hooked on the app for as long as possible and keeps them coming back for more.”

What’s more is the suit alleges that TikTok “acknowledges it ‘utilizes many coercive design tactics that detract from user agency such as infinite scroll, constant notifications, and the ‘slot machine’ effect.’” The suit claims that these features “amplify and incentivize compulsive, repeated use.”

Another part of the lawsuit has to do with push notifications. Those are the notifications that appear on users’ phones, giving them the option to open up a particular app. The suit alleges, “TikTok sends these notifications directly to users’ mobile phones, nudging younger users to engage with the app during both school and sleeping hours: ‘(We) send notifications to users during the school day and in some cases, up until midnight, which could interfere with sleep.”

Allegations around moderation issues

The lawsuit describes alleged moderation issues around videos being taken down. “In fact, as shown in internal documents, neither TikTok’s automated tools, nor its human moderators, can effectively prevent harmful videos from being published on the app. Content ‘leaks’ through TikTok’s automated and human moderation processes either because it bypasses TikTok’s moderation tools or because, though flagged, it falls through the ‘existing policy gaps and under-moderation’ and thus is never removed.”

As it pertains to the safety of children, Utah’s suit alleges that TikTok’s “moderation systems were less than 50% accurate in certain categories of minor safety.” The suit further claims that when it comes to categories like harassment and bullying, violent and graphic content and harmful behavior, the moderation systems were only around 30% accurate.

According to the suit, the moderation issues stem from TikTok failing “to adequately train moderators on its policies and guidelines.” The suit further alleges that the moderators “review only 0.25% of user comments — despite knowing that 42% of its users (over 600 million people) only post comments, not videos, on the app.”

On top of unredacting passages in the suit that allege the app causes harm to children, other passages in the suit were also unveiled — such as one claim about the connections between ByteDance and TikTok. “ByteDance therefore continues to make decisions ‘both large and small’ about all aspects of TikTok. It directs TikTok’s budget, operates TikTok’s internal document storage platform, and handles media criticism directed at TikTok,” the suit alleges.