Social Media

States Investigate TikTok Over Alleged Harms to Kids and Young Adults

Plus: Texas can't investigate family of transgender teen, SCOTUS considers case on doctor drug trafficking, and more...


Prosecutors go after TikTok. Whenever a gaggle of state attorneys general investigates a tech company, you can bet moral panic and authoritarianism aren't far away. We have seen this with Craigslist (which was then cornered into dropping adult services ads) and Backpage (which was shut down because it wouldn't). We've seen it with Facebook and Google, with bogus antitrust lawsuits following not far behind. Now, these prohibitionist pack animals are taking aim at the immensely popular short-video app TikTok.

California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont are participating in the investigation. Attorneys general in these states say they are looking into whether TikTok is bad for "children, teens, and young adults" and whether TikTok executives know this.

"As children and teens already grapple with issues of anxiety, social pressure, and depression, we cannot allow social media to further harm their physical health and mental wellbeing," said Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey said in a statement.

To explain how this is at all within their authority, prosecutors make a vague nod to consumer protection laws.

Prosecutors offer no reason to believe TikTok wants to harm kids, if it's even doing so at all. But attempts to punish tech companies that may—even inadvertently—cause distress to young people is a popular political pastime these days. (See: Congress and Instagram.) And you'll notice that the purview has moved beyond just concern for children to encompass young adults, too.

But the whole business stinks of performative nonsense—a way to appear proactive, protective, and progressive while circling the wagons around an easy scapegoat.

If TikTok and other social media platforms are causing kids' psychological anguish, it's largely for the same reason these things can cause anguish in adults: negative interactions with one's peers/other users; viewing things one might be missing out on or not included in; comparing oneself with people who seem to have more money, better bodies, or other things that inspire envy. These are issues of human nature, not technological issues.

No amount of algorithm tweaks or targeted-ad bans—which are the kind of things politicians propose as remedies—can change these factors. Short of banning social media use, nothing can.

It's also telling that only tech gets singled out for investigation when plenty of other things may exacerbate social pressure, anxiety, and depression. School, for instance, is often a major source of stress, between academic expectations, pressure to fit in, and potential bullying.

OK, you say, but school has useful attributes, too; we can't just ban school or punish administrators because attendance makes some kids feel bad! I'd argue both things are true of TikTok as well. But let's just say for a moment that TikTok is both bad for teens' well-being and has no corresponding social or psychological value.

Couldn't the same be said of fashion magazines? Celebrity news? Movies and TV aimed at teens? Video games? Sad or mad music? TV commercials concerning weight loss? Texting?

All of the above have been accused, at one point or other, of causing mental distress, bad habits, or social isolation in young people. Studies have supposedly shown as much about many of these things, too. Of course, much of this research—or at least the conclusions politicians and pundits draw from it—has been flawed, plagued by that great destroyer of rational conclusions everywhere: misplaced causation and correlation.

Folks will note that teens who do more of X (looking at celebrity magazines, watching TV, playing video games, using TikTok and Instagram, etc.) exhibit more of such-and-such negative trait (i.e., depression, anxiety, negative self-image). Then they blame X for causing these traits and say, 'see, it's Science!' But that's not what the research actually says; it merely finds a link, not which way it flows. It's just as likely—perhaps more so—that feelings of self-doubt, sadness, or social isolation may drive young people to partake in more of X, relative to teens who are better-adjusted, have more friends, are involved in more outside activities, etc.

And even if some of these things may exacerbate negative emotions for some people, Americans aren't generally suggesting (any more) that we strictly regulate teen magazines or emo music or weight loss programming, or that we punish their creators because of it.

When it comes to nontech activities, people can generally see that the issue goes deeper than the media in question (i.e., eating disorders aren't actually triggered by skinny models, even though skinny models may make someone with an eating disorder feel bad or more committed to the disordered activity). They can see that banning or hyper-regulating things over these concerns would be too much—too heavy-handed, a violation of free speech or free markets, a step toward authoritarianism. And they can acknowledge that perhaps not all forms of entertainment or diversion are good for all people without assuming that the makers of these diversions must be dastardly masterminds who must be punished.

These same precepts are true when it comes to digital media, even if less folks can see it clearly. And they are true even if prosecutors persist in preening that they're tough on tech companies for the kids and not for the publicity and potential settlement money it might bring.


Texas can't investigate family of transgender teen. A state judge has temporarily halted enforcement of a new "child abuse" policy against the family of a transgender teenager.

Last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that providing any of what's come to be known as "gender affirming care"—including hormone therapies and puberty blockers—to a minor should be considered child abuse and parents who allow these treatments prosecuted. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Texas, and Lambda Legal sued on behalf of a family being investigated.

The mother in this family—referred to in court documents as Jane Doe—works at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and was placed on leave because of medical care being provided to her transgender daughter ("Mary Doe"). Investigators also interviewed the family and sought Mary's medical records.

Now, Judge Amy Clark Meachum of the District Court of Travis County, Texas, has granted a temporary restraining order, which means the state must pause its investigation into the Doe family. The judge's ruling does not, however, halt enforcement of the policy more broadly. A next hearing is scheduled for March 11 and the broader policy will be considered then.

You can read the judge's full order here.


Can doctors be accidentally guilty of drug trafficking? The Supreme Court is considering how the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) applies to doctors prescribing opioid medications. The issue "is important for patients as well as doctors, because the threat of criminal prosecution for deviating from what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers medically appropriate has a chilling effect on pain treatment," Reason's Jacob Sullum explains. Several justices seemed alarmed that doctors might unwittingly be guilty of drug trafficking—which has been the positions of two federal appeals courts:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has held that a physician's "good faith belief that he dispensed a controlled substance in the usual course of his professional practice is irrelevant" to the question of whether he violated the CSA. Based on that reading of the law, the 11th Circuit rejected the appeal of a Mobile, Alabama, pain specialist who was sentenced to 21 years in federal prison for writing opioid prescriptions that deviated from accepted practice. According to the 11th Circuit, it did not matter at all whether the defendant, Xiulu Ruan, sincerely believed that he was doing what a doctor is supposed to do.

That decision is one of two involving physicians convicted of drug trafficking that the Supreme Court is reviewing. In the other case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit likewise held that a doctor's good faith has no bearing on the question of whether his prescriptions were written in "the usual course of professional practice," which it said must be determined "objectively." That case involves Casper, Wyoming, physician Shakeel Kahn, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison.


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