Utah Sues TikTok Over Alleged Child Exploitation on Livestreams

TikTok Faces Lawsuit Over Safety Concerns for Underage Users in Utah and New York

by Faruk Imamovic
Utah Sues TikTok Over Alleged Child Exploitation on Livestreams
© Getty Images/Drew Angerer

The state of Utah has launched a lawsuit against TikTok, accusing the popular social media platform of enabling the exploitation of children through its livestreaming feature. This latest lawsuit, spearheaded by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, highlights growing concerns about the safety and well-being of young users on social media. The allegations point to serious flaws in TikTok's age verification and enforcement measures, claiming that these shortcomings have facilitated inappropriate and harmful interactions between adults and minors on the platform.

The Lawsuit's Claims

TikTok Live, a feature allowing users to broadcast live videos and interact with viewers in real-time, is at the heart of the controversy. Although TikTok prohibits users under 18 from hosting livestreams, the lawsuit argues that this rule is not adequately enforced. The complaint describes TikTok Live as operating "like a virtual strip club," where children are encouraged to perform illicit acts in exchange for monetary gifts from viewers, often represented by colorful emojis. The lawsuit asserts that TikTok has been aware of these issues since at least December 2023 but has failed to take effective action.

According to the complaint, an investigator observed underage girls engaging in suggestive content and young boys using filters to pose as girls, all within minutes of browsing the live feed. These interactions often involved the exchange of money, with children being manipulated into sending gifts in return for likes, shoutouts, or other interactions from livestream hosts. The lawsuit also alleges that TikTok's measures to prevent such activities are insufficient and that the platform's age verification processes are easily circumvented.

TikTok's Response and Previous Legal Challenges

In response to the lawsuit, TikTok spokesperson Michael Hughes defended the platform's policies, stating that TikTok has "industry-leading policies and measures to help protect the safety and well-being of teens." Hughes emphasized that creators must be at least 18 years old to go live and that accounts failing to meet age requirements have their access revoked immediately. Despite these assurances, this is not the first time TikTok has faced legal challenges over the safety of young users.

Last year, Utah filed a separate lawsuit against TikTok, accusing the app of harming the mental health of young users, echoing similar claims from Arkansas and New York City. These lawsuits argue that social media platforms, including TikTok, are contributing to a mental health crisis among young people. TikTok has consistently pushed back against these claims, highlighting various tools and features designed to support young users, such as automatic time limits and partnerships with experts to implement best practices.

Utah Sues TikTok Over Alleged Child Exploitation on Livestreams
Utah Sues TikTok Over Alleged Child Exploitation on Livestreams© Getty Images/Joe Radle

National and International Context

The new lawsuit against TikTok in Utah comes at a time when the platform faces significant scrutiny in the United States. Recently, President Joe Biden signed a law requiring TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, to be sold to a new company or face a ban from US app stores. TikTok has sued to block this law, arguing that it violates the First Amendment. The outcome of this legal battle could have far-reaching implications for the platform's future in the US.

Internationally, social media platforms are also under pressure to improve safety and accountability. For instance, the European Union's Digital Services Act (DSA) allows for significant penalties against companies that fail to comply with safety regulations, including fines of up to 6% of their worldwide revenue. This contrasts sharply with the US, where Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides tech companies with broad immunity from liability for user-generated content. This legal protection makes it challenging to hold platforms like TikTok accountable for the actions of their users.

Implications for Social Media Regulation

The allegations against TikTok highlight broader concerns about the regulation and oversight of social media platforms, especially regarding the safety of young users. As more states and municipalities consider legal action against these companies, the pressure is mounting for stricter regulations and more robust enforcement mechanisms. The Utah lawsuit, with its detailed claims and calls for a jury trial, underscores the urgent need for social media platforms to take more proactive steps to protect their youngest and most vulnerable users.

TikTok's ongoing legal battles and the growing number of lawsuits against social media companies reflect a significant shift in public and governmental attitudes toward these platforms. As evidence of their potential harm to young users mounts, calls for greater accountability and stricter regulations are likely to intensify. For now, the outcome of Utah's lawsuit against TikTok could set a precedent for how similar cases are handled in the future, potentially leading to more rigorous oversight and safety measures across the industry.

New York City's Legal Action Against Social Media Giants

In a related development, New York City has taken a bold step by suing several major social media platforms, including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube. The city alleges that these platforms exploit young users' mental health, resulting in significant costs for health programs and services. This lawsuit is part of a broader trend of increasing legal actions against social media companies for their role in the mental health crisis among youth.

During a recent press conference, New York City Mayor Eric Adams highlighted the detrimental impact of social media on young people's mental health, drawing parallels to public health hazards such as tobacco and firearms. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and equitable relief to fund prevention education and mental health treatment. Additionally, the city has released a comprehensive social media action plan aimed at holding companies accountable, providing education and support to young people and families, and studying the long-term impacts of social media on youth.

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