On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified on behalf of the app to a united — and ornery — U.S. Congress. He was called in to address growing concerns from U.S. lawmakers that his platform, TikTok, threatened national security because of its parent company’s ties to the Chinese government. While discussions of national security played a large role in the often one-sided discussions — many representatives did not even give Chew the opportunity to respond to questions — another, perhaps equally large, strain of thought animated the hearing: a growing panic that American children, in particular young girls, would be influenced by the evils of the clock app.
“TikTok also targets our children. The For You algorithm is a tool for TikTok to own their attention, and prey on their innocence. Within minutes of creating an account, your algorithm can promote suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders to children. It encourages challenges to put their lives in danger, and allows adults to prey on our beautiful, beloved daughters,” said the chair of the committee, Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, in her introductory speech.
Paternalistic attitudes, specifically those aimed at young women and girls, dominate much of contemporary political thought when it comes to the question of how we regulate internet platforms. It often comes with a research-based impetus — the usage of social media apps like Instagram has been linked with eating disorders — and sends a strong moral imperative to older constituents: Your daughter is in danger, and we need to protect her. We saw it this week with the TikTok hearing, and we saw it two years ago when lawmakers confronted executives from Facebook and Instagram, which are both owned by Meta.
This line of thinking embodies old-school patriarchal narratives that young women are in danger, and they need to be protected. But there’s another issue with it entirely: It’s completely ignorant of the history of the internet. Teenage girls don’t need to be protected from the internet, because they’ve built the internet we know today.
The history of TikTok and the history of modern teenage girls have been deeply intertwined. A 2022 survey from Pew indicated that 67% of teenage Americans use TikTok, with 16% of those surveyed saying they use it “almost constantly.” Whereas other social media platforms, like Twitch, tend to be dominated by boys, Pew reported that girls were more likely to use TikTok. The largest pioneers in the space have been young, teenage women and girls. The rise of the platform itself went hand in hand with the growth of stars like the dancer Charli D’Amelio, who was the most-followed creator for over two years. The app’s breakout moment was also created by a teen girl: Jalaiah Harmon invented the Renegade dance at age 14. (Although it’s best known as a TikTok dance, Harmon first posted her Renegade video on Funimate and Instagram.)
Fan communities — which dominate the app — are also often driven by young women. The K-pop fandom’s average age is 23, meaning it still includes a significant number of teens, and it’s also majority female. Breakout hits, like the already unfathomably popular all-girls K-pop group NewJeans’ debut, have been fueled by a dedicated and organized group of fans who make edits and teach choreography. American pop stars benefit from fangirl influence, too. If you’ve seen anything about the Taylor Swift tour this week, it’s probably thanks to a fangirl who recorded and published it.
TikTok’s dominance is thanks to the young women and girls who make content on the app, and now the platform has over 150 million American users.
TikTok’s power extends beyond cultural sway. Platforms like TikTok have allowed young women to find their voices politically, extending out to the national level. In a time when many from the Republican establishment refused to acknowledge the results of the 2020 election, the young Claudia Conway spoke out against the narrative pushed by her mother, Kellyanne Conway, and the entire Trump administration. And she did it on her personal TikTok.
I do not think TikTok is the end-all-be-all for the empowerment of teenage girls. In many ways, TikTok has built an extremely effective way to capitalize on the labor of young women and girls at even earlier ages. Misinformation regularly presents a problem on the platform. There’s also the effect that seeing edited images and bodies can have on young adults, which has been a researched and documented problem on platforms like Instagram. TikTok is a video-based app where users get shown videos via an algorithm. This algorithm mirrors — and potentially amplifies — various preexisting biases and beauty standards by prioritizing videos of people who embody certain characteristics, like being young, thin, pale, and so on.
Politicians aren’t protecting teenage girls by proposing a ban on TikTok. If anything, sudden action would hurt them, as we would see vast influencer-led industries shut down overnight. It’s important now, more than ever, to support the savviness of teenage girls on platforms like TikTok. Besides, if there’s a ban and users move to platforms like Instagram, young women and girls would face the same types of issues that lawmakers voiced concerns about 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 potentially been excluded from some of the benefits of internet fame. And give young women both digital and physical spaces to learn and talk about the hardships that come with unrealistic body ideals and standards.
In a world that has historically excluded women from powerful institutions, I, for one, am very wary of any sort of sudden action that takes away a platform like TikTok.