TikTok, National Security - and a Desperate Generation
By the time the congressional hearing on the social media platform TikTok was over, you almost felt sorry for the company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew. He was grilled, hectored, continuously interrupted, and even called a liar.
But please note the word “almost.” Mr. Chew’s “non-denial denials” — his continuous and artful misdirection and carefully nuanced responses to yes-and-no questions — gave the lie to his faux sincerity.
So, it was gratifying to see Members of Congress refusing to let Mr. Chew’s practiced earnestness conceal the reality that TikTok poses a direct threat to the liberty of the American people. There was, of course, a good bit of political theater and unctuous grandstanding. This is to be expected in a forum where politicians — liberals and conservatives alike - want to be seen as heroes. And yet — so what? Entwined in all the huffing-and-puffing were a lot of significant questions and welcome aggressiveness. Our national security deserves no less.
That’s exactly what TikTok threatens — the safety of the United States. Through a measure titled the Data Security Law, enacted by the National People’s Congress in 2021, the Chinese government now has “the power to shut down companies in possession of user data deemed important or critical by officials.” The law “gives the government a far greater degree of control over user data held by both state organizations and private companies, including foreign companies.”
Since TikTok “gains access to users’ photos, videos, location, IP address, message content, and search history: what you’re viewing and for how long,” this means you are, in essence, under surveillance by a foreign firm infused with Communist Chinese influence. Supposedly, this data collection is only used to help TikTok develop algorithms in order to send you videos your viewing habits indicate you will enjoy. Sounds innocent enough. Except when you consider that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is headquartered in Beijing.
Why is TikTok so popular? Technology journalist Alex Hern notes that TikTok provides “easy-to-use video creation tools that have blurred the line between creator and consumer far more than YouTube had ever managed [and] a vast library of licensed music allowed teens to soundtrack their clips without fear of copyright strikes.” And, in an era in which pornography is now as accessible as the smartphone in your pocket, TikTok traffics in vulgarity with abandon.
It should be no surprise, then, that American teens find TikTok not only alluring but addictive. TikTok provides a “personalized ‘For You’ stream created by artificial intelligence (AI) for each user,” a degree of individualized attention that encourages young people — many of whom wrestle with loneliness, anxiety, and depression — to find comfort in a platform that specializes in them. TikTok also allows almost indiscriminate “selfie” posting, inviting young people to expose themselves, sometimes quite literally, for all the world to see.
TikTok is not alone in the unfriendly grip it holds on American youth. Some of the harms of excessive use of social media are fairly well known. As reported by the Mayo Clinic, social media can “negatively affect teens, distracting them, disrupting their sleep, and exposing them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people's lives and peer pressure.” A 2019 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association states that “an increasing body of literature suggests that social media use is associated with mental health problems in adolescence.”
Surely, this must concern all of us who follow Jesus. A recently published study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2021, 57% of all female high school students “experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” Among high school boys, the percentage was lower but still, in itself, high: 29%.
As a university professor, I see these things frequently. Anxiety, sadness, and glumness are displayed not only in my private conversations with students but simply by observing the youth I see every day. These things are not universal, by any means, but they are real and not uncommon.
Why? Divorce, peer rejection, academic pressure, social expectations, various kinds of abuse, and sexual confusion are rampant. So is the omission, among so very many young people, of any glimmer of hope grounded in the unconditional love of a Creator and Redeemer. The beauty of a God Who became man and gave Himself up for our sins is unknown to them.
So many American youth need affirmation, friendship, and mentorship. Their vulnerability presents great danger, as constantly scrolling through TikTok demonstrates. But TikTok would be less of an issue were Christians to take opportunities to be present in the lives of young men and women whose souls are being refined in a crucible of cultural conflict.
Followers of Jesus are called to make disciples. An entire generation awaits our answer to this call.
Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Lecturer in Regent University's Honors College.