The TikTok logo is seen on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen which displays the TikTok home screen, March 18, 2023, in Boston Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

Joy Cartwright will graduate from the University of Maine this spring with a double major in marketing and sociology. She is a member of the Honors College, and her thesis research explores the risks and sociological implications of social media in the U.S.These views are her own as she is not authorized to represent the university or the University of Maine System. This is a guest contribution to the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

“Social media is the new American Dream,” said John Dombroski, a Cornell University student with a TikTok following of 2.8 million. For a small minority, TikTok has transformed lives and opened doors for unimaginable opportunities. The unique nature of the platform, with its quick videos and never-ending feed, propelled TikTok to become one of the fastest-growing apps, and the first to reach 1 billion users. In the United States alone, more than a third of the country has downloaded the app, capturing an entire generation while redefining perceptions of social status.

TikTok is especially popular with today’s teens and children. According to Pew Research Center, 67 percent of U.S. teens use the app, exceeding tech giants such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter. Given the algorithmic nature of the app, it has the potential to shape social experiences and fundamental worldviews of entire populations.

With such a significant impact, the question should be asked, has TikTok become the new American Dream or the new American demise? This idea becomes all the more concerning when considering the app is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company headquartered in Beijing. Critics see the app as a platform for large-scale information warfare, in which data collection assists in mass manipulation and the reinforcement of geopolitical agendas.

According to TikTok’s privacy policy, the app collects a wide range of user information such as internet address, keystroke patterns, device information, in-app messages, browsing habits and search history. However, this is not the extent of the app’s data collection, with personal information such as user age, location and contacts also being collected.

The U.S. government and domestic firms have already begun implementing countermeasures to mitigate the security threat that TikTok poses. In 2020, the  Congressional Research Service stated, “both the Democratic and Republican national committees, the Department of Defense, and some private firms, such as Wells Fargo Inc., have banned or discouraged the use of the TikTok app.” Similar efforts have been made in Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills recently banned the app from state-owned devices and all devices connected to the government’s network.

The Chinese Communist Party recognizes the potent influence of TikTok. For example, criticism has been raised about the variances observed in the Chinese version of TikTok, also known as Douyin, compared to what is available to the rest of the world. The differences are both surface-level and concealed in algorithms, yet the intent remains clear.

Tristan Harris, a computer scientist and advocate for social media ethics, describes the phenomenon, “they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.” This comparison may sound extreme; however, it’s an effective way of portraying the potentially harmful capabilities of the app.

It’s important to acknowledge that many of the criticisms raised about the app are not exclusive to TikTok and can be applied to other tech giants. The danger isn’t mearily the platform itself but rather the domestic and foreign influence it grants to the CCP. Public scrutiny and growing pressure from U.S. security advisers will continue to fuel the implementation of protective measures. The nationwide debate surrounding a potential ban has proved to be a rare example of bipartisan support, which was fully displayed at the recent congressional hearing on March 23.

The first step toward creating a safer digital environment should include implementing stricter data privacy and collection regulations for all apps. In an age of social media, we must continue to educate the public about the harmful practices used by these corporations. The U.S. should define the next era of digital legislation and protection while preserving the integrity of American values.