TikTok Lite sparks EU concerns: A deep dive into digital addiction

by Emma Vivian on 20 May 2024

In the fast-paced world of social media, concerns about digital addiction are taking centre stage once again, with TikTok and Meta at the forefront of scrutiny.

With the launch of TikTok Lite in France and Spain under investigation, concerns about addictive algorithms persist. After the first investigation into Bytedance-owned TikTok launched by the European Commission in February, the Commission has initiated a second round of formal proceedings under the Digital Services Act (DSA), focusing on the launch of TikTok Lite in France and Spain. Meta is also under the spotlight, with a probe from the Commission on its ‘addictive algorithms’ and ‘rabbit holes’ (the digital phenomenon where users get sucked into content loops online, often guided by algorithms)  for Facebook and Instagram. The American company is still to issue any statement on the matter.

The Commission’s core concern against TikTok revolves around the "Task and Reward Program" embedded within TikTok Lite, which allows users to earn points for various activities on the platform. These rewards can include virtual coins that can be redeemed for various perks within the app, such as virtual gifts or other digital items. This raises alarms about encouraging addictive behaviour, especially among minors. The investigation will focus on the measures taken by TikTok to reduce those risks. The Commission’s main concerns relate to the impact on children, mental health, and addiction. The lack of effective age verification mechanisms and the suspected addictive design of the platforms are already under investigation in the first formal proceedings against TikTok.

Hold onto your smartphones, because there’s more. Apparently, the Chinese company submitted the documents required by the Commission for the first probe fashionably late, and it is unclear if they have submitted the requested information before the deadline this time around. 

Initiating formal proceedings grants the Commission authority to pursue additional enforcement actions, including implementing interim measures and issuing decisions on non-compliance. The Commission is also authorised to consider any commitments offered by TikTok to address the issues under investigation.

Commencing formal proceedings also relieves Digital Services Coordinators or any other competent authority within EU Member States of their responsibilities to oversee and enforce the DSA concerning the suspected infringements. The world of social media awaits TikTok's next move with anticipation. Will they dance their way out of trouble?

The Commission’s reaction concerning TikTok is not the first time one of the EU institutions has positioned itself against digital addiction. The topic of digital addiction is gaining a lot of visibility within the EU, so much so that the European Parliament Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) has adopted a draft report warning of the addictive nature of certain digital services. On October 25, 2023, the committee urged the European Commission to draft legislation aimed at reducing the addictive elements of digital platforms, particularly social media, arguing that, as technology continues to integrate itself into our daily lives, it is imperative to address the rising tide of digital addiction and prioritise the well-being of users, especially the younger generations who are most vulnerable to its harmful effects.

Understanding digital addiction

Digital addiction, known by various terms such as ‘excessive internet use’ encompasses a range of behaviours. It is characterised by excessive engagement in non-work-related internet activities, often accompanied by classic addiction symptoms.

Prevalence rates of digital addiction vary across EU Member States. A large-scale study across nine European countries reported that the estimated range of Problematic Internet Use (PIU) spans from 14.3% to 54.9% of the population. With the average screen time continuing to rise, digital addiction is affecting millions of people across Europe, making it an issue of growing societal concern.

The European Parliament's Response

The proposed regulations target design choices such as endless scrolling, pull-to-refresh, auto-play videos, push notifications, and more, which are seen as detrimental to users' mental health. There is a particular concern about the impact on children and teens, as some of these design choices may be linked to conditions like depression and ADHD, according to a paper that is quoted in European Parliament’s report.

The draft report raises concerns about the ineffectiveness of time limits as a solution to addiction problems related to online services. It points out that placing the responsibility on individuals through time limits does not tackle the core issue of intentionally addictive online service design for profit. Moreover, it notes that time limits have not led to reduced usage, particularly among adolescents who can easily bypass such restrictions. 

The report argues that existing and forthcoming EU rules, including the Digital Services Act and the AI Act, have limitations in addressing addictive design. As a result, the report urges the Commission to address regulatory gaps, introduce legislation against addictive design, and review directives related to consumer protection.

Next steps

Despite the strong stance taken by the Committee, the proposal is non-binding and ultimately depends on the European Commission for decisions on the matter. The European Commission is evaluating the tech space to determine if consumer protection legislation needs to be updated, with the aim of proposing a Digital Fairness Act in the next mandate.

However, implementation of legislative action may take a substantial amount of time, especially considering changes in the European Commission and Parliament following the parliamentary elections in June 2024.

As we navigate the digital landscape, the European Parliament believes that its call for action on digital addiction is an essential step toward safeguarding the well-being of citizens in the digital age. We will continue to follow this debate as we approach the next European Commission mandate. If you have any questions about this issue, please contact emma.vivian@inlinepolicy.com

Topics: European Politics, Platforms, EU Digital Services Act, EU, Regulation, Technology, techpolicy

Emma Vivian

Written by Emma Vivian

Emma joined Inline in 2022 and provides policy analysis, monitoring and advice to tech clients from Inline’s Brussels office. She holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Venice, and a MSc in Public Policy from the University of Reading. Emma speaks English, Italian, French and Spanish.

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