The EU warned TikTok’s new rewards feature could be addictive. Now the app's suspended it

Author: Editors Desk, Sébastian SEIBT Source: France 24
April 24, 2024 at 13:56
TikTok Lite is a new slimmed-down version of the video-sharing platform that features a controversial rewards programme. © Jean-Marc Barrere / Hans Lucas
TikTok Lite is a new slimmed-down version of the video-sharing platform that features a controversial rewards programme. © Jean-Marc Barrere / Hans Lucas

TikTok announced Wednesday that it had suspended a feature that rewarded users for watching and liking videos on its new Lite app, available in France and Spain, after the EU launched an investigation Monday over child-safety concerns.

Having already launched a probe into TikTok in February, the European Commission on April 22 opened another investigation into the social media app’s new “Lite” version over concerns about the app's "risks of serious damage for the mental health of users", including minors.

Threatening to impose interim measures including suspending the controversial rewards programme featured in the "Lite" app in the EU "pending the assessment of its safety", Brussels had given TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, until Wednesday April 23 to provide a risk assessment for TikTok Lite.



The commission had also warned that if TikTok failed to reply to the request, it could impose fines of up to one percent of its total annual income or of its global turnover and periodic penalties up to five percent of its average daily income or annual turnover worldwide.

"We suspect TikTok 'Lite' could be as toxic and addictive as 'light' cigarettes," Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Internal Market, said at the time.In a post on X following TikTok's announcement that it would be suspending the controversial rewards programme, Breton was triumphant.

"Our children are not guinea pigs for social media," he said.


The ‘rewards’ programme

A lighter version of the popular TikTok app, TikTok Lite, which was introduced in France and Spain two weeks ago, takes up less memory in a smartphone and is made to perform over slower internet connections.  

TikTok's slimmed-down version mainly targets teenagers, who are often equipped with less powerful mobile devices.

The spinoff app also contained an additional feature that allowed users aged 18 and over to earn points by performing certain tasks such as watching videos, “liking” content, following content creators or inviting “friends” to sign up. 

The points could then be exchanged for goods such as vouchers or gift cards as well as virtual currency that could be spent on content creators via the app's rewards programme.

According to French news outlet Libération, TikTok Lite users could earn up to 300 points upon signing up and hundreds more if they log in daily for 10 days. 


Risks of addiction 

Some experts also agree that TikTok Lite’s new features may prove to be addictive.

“Rewards in TikTok may activate the limbic system, the reward system in the brain, which is associated with the development and maintenance of addictions,” said Daria J. Kuss, associate professor in psychology at Nottingham Trent University. 

“When using TikTok, we experience a feeling of pleasure, a reward. Over time, the brain learns to associate TikTok use with this pleasurable experience and will crave more of it, which can explain the maintenance of the behaviours,” Kuss said.

TikTok Lite’s rewards programme may also increase the “addictive potential” of the world’s most addictive social media platform

“Traditional TikTok operates primarily as a platform for creating, sharing, and viewing short-form videos. Its addictive potential largely stems from several key features such as infinite scroll and algorithmic feed," said Halley Pontes, senior lecturer in psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. 

“TikTok Lite, while similar in its basic functionality to the traditional app, includes a reward system that may alter its addictive potential due to the task and reward programme [through] monetary incentives and behavioural reinforcement,” Pontes said. 


Second EU probe

The European Commission's probe into TikTok is the EU's second under a new law – the Digital Services Act (DSA) – against the social media platform, following a February probe over alleged violations of its obligations to protect minors online. 

Demanding that digital firms do more to police online content, the DSA gives the EU the power to slap companies with heavy fines that could reach as high as six percent of a digital firm's global annual revenues. 

Repeat offenders can even see their platforms blocked in the 27-country European Union. 

The commission said it believes TikTok launched the app "without prior diligent assessment of the risks it entails, particularly those related to the addictive effect of the platforms, and without taking effective risk mitigating measures". 

The commission also quizzed TikTok about its measures to mitigate "systemic risks" in its Lite app and gave the platform until May 3 to respond.


Scientific research 

Few scientific studies, however, have been carried out on the potential addictive effects of TikTok, and little is known about its true addictive potential, Pontes said. 

“While some research has shown an association between addictive social media use and use of substance, the existing evidence does not allow for any causal association to be established and as such, caution is advised when generalising such relationships, as they could stigmatise social media users,” he said. 

Meanwhile a 2023 Chinese study cited in a report by the French Senate’s investigation commission found a high prevalence of addictive short-video application use among surveyed adolescents.

The study also highlighted addictive users’ generally worse mental health conditions compared to moderate or non-users. 

“TikTok has a possible addictive potential in that highly engaged users may develop problems traditionally associated with substance-related addiction as a consequence of using the app,” Kuss said. 

“These symptoms are mood modification (using the app to change how you feel), tolerance (needing to spend increased amounts of time on the app to experience the same feelings), abstinence (discontinuing the problematic behaviours), withdrawal (adverse psychological and physiological symptoms during abstinence), relapse (reinstatement of the problematic behaviours after a period of abstinence), conflict (internal – not being able to stop the behaviours, and interpersonal – problems with the social world around the user),” she said. 

(with AFP) 

This article has been translated from the original in French

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