By Sheila Dang and Rami Ayyub
(Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers at a congressional hearing on Thursday accused TikTok of serving harmful content and inflicting “emotional distress” on young users, grilling the Chinese-owned app’s CEO on the company’s outsized influence on teens.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Washington, kicked off the hearing with TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew saying that within minutes of creating an account on TikTok, the content algorithm promotes self-harm and eating disorder content, and encourages “dangerous” challenges that can put kids’ lives at risk.
Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, said content on TikTok “exacerbated feelings of emotional stress” in children.
Chew, in his first appearance before Congress, testified that while the “vast majority” of TikTok users are over the age of 18, the company has invested in measures to protect young people who use the app.
The hearing comes at a crucial moment for TikTok, as the Biden administration is facing growing pressure from lawmakers to ban the app in the country for national security concerns. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company.
Lawmakers quizzed Chew about whether Americans’ user data could be accessed by the Chinese government as well as how it prevented harmful content from reaching young users.
Rep. Bob Latta, Republican from Ohio, spoke during the hearing of a 10-year-old girl who suffocated herself doing a so-called “blackout challenge” from videos posted on the app. Latta said TikTok should not be protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a law that generally gives online platforms immunity for content generated by users.
Chew later said during the hearing that content such as dangerous challenges were prohibited from TikTok.
TikTok has rolled out more parental control tools recently, and earlier this month said it was in the early stages of developing a feature that would let parents to block their teens from seeing videos that contain certain words or hashtags.
(Reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas; Editing by Mark Porter)