On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified on behalf of the app for a united — and ornery — U.S. Congress. He was brought in to address growing concerns from US lawmakers that his platform, TikTok, was threatening national security due to its parent company’s ties to the Chinese government. While discussions of national security played a large part in the often one-sided discussions—many representatives didn’t even give Chew the opportunity to answer questions—another, perhaps equally important, train of thought animated the hearing: a growing panic that American children, especially young girls , would be affected by the evil of the clock app.
“TikTok also targets our children. The For You algorithm is a tool for TikTok to grab their attention and prey on their innocence. Within minutes of creating an account, your algorithm can promote suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders in children. It encourages challenges to put their lives at risk, and allows adults to prey on our beautiful, beloved daughters,” said committee chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington in her opening address.
Paternalistic attitudes, particularly those directed at young women and girls, dominate much of contemporary political thought when it comes to how we regulate internet platforms. It often comes with a research-based impulse – the use of social media apps like Instagram has been linked to eating disorders — and sends a strong moral imperative to older voters: Your daughter is in danger and we must protect her. We saw it this week with the TikTok hearing, and we saw it two years ago when lawmakers confronted executives of Facebook and Instagram, both owned by Meta.
This mindset embodies old-fashioned patriarchal narratives that young women are in danger and need to be protected. But there is another problem: it is totally ignorant of the history of the internet. Teenage girls don’t need to be protected from the internet, because they built the internet as we know it today.
The history of TikTok and the history of modern teenage girls are deeply intertwined. a Pew 2022 study indicated that 67% of US teens use TikTok, with 16% of those surveyed saying they use it “almost constantly”. While other social media platforms, such as Twitch, tend to be dominated by boys, Pew reported that girls were more likely to use TikTok. The greatest space pioneers have been young, teenage women and girls. The rise of the platform itself went hand in hand with the growth of stars such as the dancer Charli D’Amelio, who was the most followed creator for more than two years. The app’s breakthrough moment was also created by a teenage girl: Jalaiah Harmon the Renegade dance at age 14. (Although it is best known as a TikTok danceHarmon first posted her Renegade video to Funimate and Instagram.)
Fan communities – which dominate the app – are also often driven by young women. The average age of the K-pop fandom is 23, meaning it still includes a significant number of teenagers, and is also predominantly female. Breakthrough hits, such as the already unfathomably popular debut by all-girl K-pop group NewJeans, were fueled by a dedicated and organized group of fans who saw edits and teach choreography. American pop stars also benefit from the influence of fangirls. If you’ve seen anything about the Taylor Swift tour this week, it’s probably thanks to a fangirl who recorded and publicized it.
TikTok’s dominance is due to the young women and girls who create content on the app, and now the platform has 150 million US users.
TikTok’s power extends beyond cultural domination. Platforms like TikTok have empowered young women to find their political voice, all the way to the national level. At a time when many in the Republican establishment refused to recognize the results of the 2020 election, the young Claudia Conway spoke out against the story pressured by her mother, Kellyanne Conway, and the entire Trump administration. And she did it on her personal TikTok.
I don’t think TikTok is the ultimate goal for teenage girl empowerment. In many ways, TikTok has developed an extremely effective way to capitalize on the labor of young women and girls at even younger ages. Frequent wrong information gives a problem on the platform. There’s also the effect seeing edited images and bodies can have on young adults, which has been researched and documented issue on platforms like Instagram. TikTok is a video-based app where users are shown videos through an algorithm. This algorithm reflects — and possibly strengthened — various pre-existing prejudices and beauty standards by prioritizing videos of people who embody certain characteristics, such as young, thin, pale, and so on.
Politicians are not protecting teenage girls by proposing a ban on TikTok. Sudden action would hurt them if anything, as we would see major influencer-led industries shut down overnight. Now more than ever, it’s important to support the smartness of teenage girls on platforms like TikTok. Besides, if a ban comes and users move to platforms like Instagram, young women and girls would face the same kinds of problems that lawmakers expressed concerns at the hearing.
Invest in education that teaches young people to be skeptical about the information presented to them. Push TikTok to better compensate creators for their work, and especially black creators who have possibly excluded of some of the benefits of internet fame. And give young women both digital and physical space to learn and talk about the hardships associated with unrealistic body ideals and norms.
For example, in a world that has historically excluded women from powerful institutions, I am very wary of any kind of sudden action that a platform like TikTok takes away.