Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has hinted at possible bipartisan support for GOP-led legislation that would ban TikTok, the popular Chinese social media platform, in the United States. This effort has our support, because the closest analogy for TikTok is not Facebook, pornography, or even other addictive substances, but fentanyl.
Both TikTok and fentanyl production and distribution represent strategic, coordinated attacks on the United States with the intent of harming our population. Both are addictive and have deleterious effects on millions of Americans. Both are coming across our borders, as foreign actors seek to undermine our security and stability.
There are myriad bad choices Americans are free to make. Spending copious amounts of time on social media is one of them.
Research confirms that the more time people spend on social media, the worse they feel about themselves and their lives. These effects are particularly pronounced for young people, and social media companies know it. In 2021, Facebook hid its internal research about the harmful effects Instagram has on teenagers’ mental health. This is particularly true for adolescent girls, who reported that the social media platform made them feel worse about their bodies, lowered self-confidence, and increased the likelihood of suicidal thoughts.
Similarly, Americans can drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or consume pornography—choices that some find morally objectionable, and that are objectively unhealthy in many cases. We wouldn’t want the government to intervene and ban these vices purely because they can hurt you.
Furthermore, TikTok is configured to damage Americans’ cognitive abilities. The aim of the Chinese Communist Party is not simply to gather information through TikTok, but to disadvantage America by harming our minds. This is not hyperbole. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence is that the Chinese government does not allow the American version of TikTok inside its country, or inside the minds of its youth.
The Chinese version of the platform is completely different, with a focus on education, not the mindless dross (laced with misinformation and propaganda) present on the American version. The videos that dominate TikTok in the U.S. are about 15 seconds each. The Chinese platform allows longer videos—up to 15 minutes—to be uploaded. For users under 14, the Chinese version even comes with a 40-minute-per-day time limit.
There is evidence that smartphone addiction alters gray matter. The U.S. version of TikTok is designed to be more addictive. It also undermines our ability to withstand the delay between desire and gratification, a critical cognitive skill that allows us to tolerate discomfort, be patient, and develop self-control. TikTok also appears to negatively impact memory and attention span. What happens if you have an entire generation incapable of managing that delay or attending to critical information?
Like fentanyl, the version of TikTok China shops to Americans is addictive and destructive; it is marketed primarily to younger people. TikTok U.S. users between the ages of 10 and 19 account for 37 percent of all users, and 64 percent of users are under 30 years old. American youth are increasingly using TikTok not just for entertainment, but also as a search engine, giving the platform even more information and influence. This does not even begin to address TikTok as a “superhighway” for actual drugs or a “danger zone” for the sexual exploitation of children.
Lawmakers can and should act to rid the United States of TikTok, just as they should act to rid the U.S. of fentanyl. It is not a matter of regulating content, denying Americans the freedom to enjoy technology as they see fit, or disadvantaging a foreign competitor. This is a matter of national security. Our government should protect American interests, and what could be a more important national interest than our people, our next generation?
It’s time to ban TikTok from our phones, and our shores.