*Originally posted in The NY Post
By Ricky Schlott — Febuary 25, 2023
TikTok is burrowing into the devices — and the brains — of teens and tweens around the world. But, as the app’s Beijing-based parent company Bytedance is aggressively exporting the social media equivalent of heroin, it’s serving up a far less-damaging product in China that’s designed to protect their own youth.
While TikTok has become the most popular app in the rest of the world, a domestic version called Douyin is available to Chinese consumers. The apps are nearly identical — but with one critical difference: users under 14 are required to use Douyin in healthy moderation on “teenage mode.”
Young, impressionable users are limited to 40 minutes a day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. to ensure they get adequate sleep. Endless zombie-like scrolling is interrupted by mandatory 5-second delays. They’re also only shown specially-selected “inspiring” content.
“The algorithm is vastly different, promoting science, educational and historical content in China while making our citizens watch stupid dance videos with the main goal of making us imbeciles,” Nicolas Chaillan, former Air Force and Space Force Chief Software Officer told the Post.
While American youth are performing hyper-sexualized dances and engaging in absurd viral trends, like the deadly NyQuil Chicken Challenge, their Chinese counterparts are treated to a curated stream of videos promoting patriotism, social cohesion and personal aspirations.
For instance, a quick scroll through Douyin shows videos of teachers being celebrated, at-home science experiments and a man solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded.
Because it’s a Beijing-based company, there’s broad agreement that the Chinese Communist Party wields control over Bytedance. And Douyin has proven a perfect domestic propaganda tool: a direct line of communication with China’s youth to pump out pro-social and pro-China messages.
Perhaps that’s why Chinese kids are shooting for the stars while American kids are shooting for virtual stardom. The most popular career ambition among American youth is an influencer. In China it’s an astronaut.
“It’s almost like they recognize 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,” former Google employee and Center for Humane Technology founder Tristan Harris told “60 Minutes.”
While Bytedance is careful to socially engineer positive outcomes for its country’s own kids, it’s equally capable of devising negative outcomes in rival nations — which is precisely why experts have dubbed TikTok “a dagger pointed at the heart of the United States.”
Chaillan says that, even if the app wasn’t developed expressly as a Chinese propaganda device, it most certainly has become one. “TikTok is potentially the most powerful weapon of mass manipulation and misinformation ever created by the CCP,” he warned. “It’s a dream come true for them.”
Kids and teens around the world are watching an average of 91 minutes of TikTok videos per day, providing Bytedance with unprecedented access to the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of young people. They’ve literally hooked our children. Studies out of China found that areas of the brain associated with addiction light up in brain scans when young people are shown TikTok videos.
“TikTok’s algorithm behind the For You page is known for being particularly sticky, so once kids start watching videos they are served up a constant stream,” professor, psychologist, and author of “iGen” Jean Twenge told The Post.
And the app has proven to be a dangerous breeding ground for psychological problems—proliferating negative mental health content, triggering contagious Tourette’s-like tics in some teen girls, and even potentially spurring an uptick in ADHD diagnoses.
Beyond these risks is the real possibility that the CCP could literally be influencing what Americans see on TikTok. The app’s personalized algorithm and endless scroll function, for instance, means that as soon as kids open the app, they relinquish control over what they see on their screens.
NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway thinks it’s inevitable that China is taking advantage of this unfettered access: “If I were a member of the CCP and I saw that we had a vested interest in diminishing America’s standing strategically in the world . . . I would just take my thumb and very elegantly and insidiously put it on the scale of content that reflects America in a bad light. I think that they’re doing this right now — they’d be stupid not to do it.”
Edifying this warning is research from Google noting that 40% of Gen Z are using TikTok or Instagram as their primary search engine, meaning their go-to portal to the entire internet could be under Chinese control. Chaillan thinks this influence could even have serious implications on our democratic process: “TikTok is now one of the leading advertising platforms in the US and Europe, giving full control to the CCP to what content gets promoted and what sticks. That is probably enough to sway future elections.”
News that China is wielding such influence over our youth while simultaneously shielding their own children has helped renew calls for action against TikTok. Last summer, for instance, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr asked Apple CEO Tim Cook to remove TikTok from the App Store over security concerns, but to no avail. Although the company has removed apps it deems dangerous like Parler, Apple seems unwilling to budge on TikTok— a double standard which perhaps has something to do with the fact that Apple is enormously dependent upon Chinese manufacturing.
Nonetheless, a flurry of both red and blue states have recently announced probes into the app’s impact on young users, and 18 states are moving to ban or restrict TikTok entirely (India already has).
“The contrast between the U.S. and Chinese versions is a great example of why the US needs more regulation around social media, especially for kids,” Twenge said. Adds Chailan even more stridently, “We should have banned it already . . . [China] would never have let it become that big to begin with.”
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