OPINION: No, TikTok regulation isn’t anti-youth

A drawing on a square canvas with the Tiktok logo in the center. Ones and zeros radiate out from the Tiktok logo. Behind the logo, in black and white, is the distorted face of Shou Chew.
(Max Ranney • The Student Life)

A recent TSL opinion article by Rowan Gray construed the government as fundamentally anti-youth because it might ban TikTok. The greater issue, however, is not whether or not the government should regulate social media companies it’s that the government inhibits free speech through lack of regulation. 

In the absence of cultural norms, private sector happenings and other foibles, protecting free speech comes largely in the form of governmental regulation. There are numerous facets to this, but the important implication is that the government is responsible for protecting freedoms and encouraging healthy society in ways that do not conflict with guaranteed rights. 

As such, it’s perplexing to analyze social media companies as valid arbiters of speech, which Gray does, when in reality it’s exactly what they do. They arbitrate speech. Algorithms select content. Prioritization of online voices is inherent to the system, particularly when companies have information about users. Age, race, political affiliations, search history, religion, birthdays, family members, device information, frequented topics and other identifiers are the dreams of any enterprising sociologist. Now give it all to some of the most powerful corporations in the world and see what happens.

But there’s a bigger problem with Gray’s argument than asking, “why do we care if the Chinese government has data about us that it got from TikTok?”: It’s the naïveté of how truly abnormal it is to never once be private in our recreation, work and daily business. Arguments about data transcend TikTok, and Gray acknowledges this by noting its availability elsewhere, namely through other social media companies selling your data. This essentially acknowledges the routine destruction of your privacy with a chipper “who cares” and whataboutism.

The op-ed meets the current occupation of our privacy with defeatism and nonchalance. Particularly bizarre and seemingly unrelated to Gray’s main argument was their demonization of older generations who perhaps own a house or enjoy the “riches” of Social Security and Medicare — programs they paid into their entire lives and are only recently enjoying the benefits of — and therefore are somehow fundamentally disconnected from us.

They aren’t missing out on much. How would their life have been substantially enhanced by TikTok in their early years? Those born in 1972 or earlier would have graduated from a four-year institution by 1997 and left the “youth culture” Gray depicts before the internet became substantially available anywhere. More accurate is calling it “youth social media content culture.” There are valid arguments from people over age 50 about regulating companies that use all your personal data to generate advertising profit. It’s ridiculous when Gray characterizes a bare majority of those over 65 who want to ban TikTok as “dinosaurs.” People who don’t use TikTok are not doddering fools unfamiliar with modern humanity.  

The government is not ensuring freedom of speech and exposure to ideas by letting algorithms decide what we see and hear. It is certainly within the purview of the government to take actions defending the Constitution and all its trappings; in an ideal world, youth would recognize legitimate interest in a regulatory state that prevents societal harm.

Companies today have the most information about you, not the government. Aside from necessary information for bureaucratic functioning such as birth certificates and tax records, it is companies who possess everything about you. Spending habits, interests, political leanings, location data and approval of certain content — what force has had more data to manipulate in the entirety of human history?

American life is increasingly synonymous with global life. The internet is unarguably a uniter, insofar as we are all united in destruction of privacy. It has also humanized and created a broader conscience of tolerance and openness to interesting things. I do not argue governmental regulation of it as being anodyne bureaucracy but rather as a necessity in preserving our abilities to exist in the benefits of a modern world while not sacrificing intellectual range. In a society with a true range of ideas introduced organically, everybody gains rounder ideological agency.

Most concerning is the intellectual gymnastics we continually embark on as youth. We downgrade threats to our privacy noting correctly that it’s bad but subsequently assuming it will naturally deteriorate. We then lament consumer culture, political polarization, the inability for others to understand us, attention gaps and various forms of isolation. This incessant refusal, or inability, to give up instantaneous content and diversity of thought is a harbinger of future backsliding and turmoil.

Stratification and isolation of thought — the inherent fruits of social media content consumption — usually begets conflict borne of ignorance and misunderstanding. It’s agonizing to deal with problems created by rushed thinking and careless allowances.

All of this points to Congress taking on responsibility. Societal change is rapid and easily implemented, inasmuch as things quickly get worse if not corrected by some external or otherwise empowered force. I remind readers that the systemic legitimacy of virtually all social progress and beneficial change in American society has been passed by Congress, signed by the president and found constitutional by the Supreme Court.

While governmental harmony is at its worst since the Industrial Revolution, it’s dangerous to universally disqualify our only regulator at a time when there must be regulation. Equally flawed, too, is perceiving the potential dissolution of a private, profitable arbiter of speech as an infringement on freedoms of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. The growth of content undermining our intellectual autonomy has gone unfettered and mostly unregulated, and blaming it on people over 50 is essentially targeting gray hair over tumors.

Luke Brown PO ’26 is from Bluefield, West Virginia. They enjoy deceit and eating coal.

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