In a new lawsuit, Iowa accuses TikTok of lying about content available to kids

The state of Iowa is suing TikTok, alleging that the social media company misleads parents about the kinds of content available to young users.

The lawsuit from Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird accuses TikTok of hosting “sexual content, drugs, alcohol, intense profanity, self-harm messages, and other X-rated content,” making videos that aren’t age appropriate easily accessible for children and teens in the state. “TikTok represents to Iowa parents and Iowa children that inappropriate content on its platform, including drugs, nudity, alcohol, and profanity, is ‘infrequent,’” the lawsuit states, slamming those claims as “lies.”

The state specifically takes issue with TikTok’s age rating in app marketplaces. According to Apple, an app with a 12+ rating in the App Store may include “infrequent mild language; frequent or intense cartoon, fantasy or realistic violence; mild or infrequent mature or suggestive themes; and simulated gambling which may not be suitable for children under the age of 12.”

In the course of its own research into what a 13-year-old might be exposed to on the app, the state notes that it easily surfaced content on TikTok that included “women
dancing provocatively in thong bikinis, including in close-up butt and crotch shots,” jungle juice recipes and advice about using marijuana and psilocybin. While thong bikinis might not strike fear in the heart of all parents, the lawsuit also notes that the AG’s office found videos promoting self harm, suicide and eating disorders — all dangerous forms of content that have brought social media apps into intense scrutiny from regulators in recent years.

For Apple, the next age rating up is 17+, which opens the door for more “offensive language,” sexual content, nudity, alcohol and drugs. Providing age ratings for social apps that surface endless waves of niche algorithmic user-generated content has always been more of an art than a science, but Iowa argues that TikTok intentionally misrepresents itself to parents.

In suing TikTok, Iowa is seeking an injunction under the state’s Consumer Fraud Act to force the company to end “its deceptive, misleading, false and unfair statements and conduct” related to the content parents expect given TikTok’s own community guidelines and its age rating in Apple’s App Store as well as Google Play and Microsoft’s software store.

The lawsuit also criticizes TikTok’s age-restricted mode designed for younger users, alleging that the mode fails to adequately filter out mature content:

“Restricted Mode does not work and has never worked the way TikTok claims it does. When Restricted Mode is enabled, users—even users logged in as 13-year olds— can see mature content (sexual content, nudity, mature and suggestive themes, profanity, and content related to alcohol, tobacco and drugs) on the TikTok app, including content served in the algorithmically-driven For You Feed where users have not explicitly requested it.”

TikTok touts Restricted Mode, one of its safety tools for parents, as “limit[ing] exposure to content that may not be suitable for everyone, for example, because it contains mature or complex themes.”

The Iowa lawsuit is the latest state-level push against the social media company. Last year, Montana’s governor targeted TikTok over concerns about the app’s ties to China, but a judge blocked the statewide ban, which was set to go into effect in 2024. Iowa is the latest state to sue the app over concerns around the content it serves to underage users, joining Indiana, Arkansas and Utah.

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