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Is TikTok different in China compared to the U.S.? A social media analyst compares it to opium and spinach

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In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes,” a tech expert stated that the U.S. version of TikTok — a Chinese-owned social media platform — is different than the Chinese version of the app, comparing the two experiences to opium and spinach.

TikTok in China

Although they’re both owned by ByteDance, Douyin — China’s version of TikTok — offers a different version of the social media app that is unavailable to the rest of the world, especially for children.

“It’s almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world,” Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, and advocate for social media ethics, said of China’s approach to TikTok.

“If you’re under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos,” said Harris, according to “60 Minutes,” adding that children in China were limited to only 40 minutes a day on the app.

“There’s a survey of pre-teens in the U.S. and China asking, ‘what is the most aspirational career that you want to have?’ and in the U.S., the No. 1 was a social media influencer, and in China, the No. 1 was astronaut,” Harris said. “You allow those two societies to play out for a few generations and I can tell you what your world is going to look like.”

How does the U.S. algorithm compare?

In the U.S., TikTok is known for its addicting, personalized and predictive algorithm, specifically tailored to the interests of whoever is scrolling, according to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal.

TikTok doesn’t have a specific version made for children, and limits are completely voluntary and can be set up by parents if they wish to do so, according to “60 Minutes.”

Dr. Nia Williams, a researcher at Bangor University who specializes in children’s mental health, told BBC that TikTok’s “short and sweet” video format is designed to give hits of dopamine with each video, keeping users addicted.

“TikTok has videos you might find funny, and you want to see them because they make you feel good. That’s the main nucleus of all sorts of different addictions,” Williams said. “Whatever you search for on TikTok, that algorithm will be kept. The more you search for things that you like, they will be aware of what you like and that’s what you will be fed.”

“It’s a multimillion-pound industry and they will be making money from adverts that will feed into different algorithms,” Williams added.

Taking action

According to previous Deseret News reporting, the FBI recently spoke out about its concern about the personal information TikTok collects, stating potential national security concerns. In 2020, In 2020, President Donald Trump expressed his own concerns over the app and attempted to outlaw Tiktok’s usage within the U.S. His efforts were paused by President Joe Biden in 2021, per the Deseret News.

Earlier this year, at least eight states launched an investigation into TikTok, researching the effect of the app on the mental health of teens and children, the Deseret News reported.

“Our children are growing up in the age of social media — and many feel like they need to measure up the filtered versions of reality that they see on their screens. We know this takes a devastating toll on children’s mental health and well-being,” said Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general.

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