EU threatens to shut down popular app that pays users to watch videos

The European Commission is calling the new TikTok Lite app “toxic as cigarettes.” It’s a spin-off from the makers of the original TikTok, that pays people to watch videos. The EC says it was launched without regard for risks of addiction, or safeguards against children using it. Now they’re threatening to suspend it.

The World

The US Congress has just passed a bill that could lead to a ban on the Chinese-owned video app TikTok. Europe’s cracking down, too — not just on TikTok but also on its new spin-off platform, TikTok Lite. 

The lite version is slightly different from what most TikTok users know the app to be. This new version pays people to watch videos.

Jennifer Gay, a TikTok content creator, sits outside the US Capitol, April 23, 2024.Mariam Zuhaib/AP

“It’s totally nuts,” Spanish YouTuber Feliking told his 150,000 subscribers earlier this month. “They will literally pay you to watch videos. You’ll accumulate more and more coins for as long as you can hang in there.”

So far, it’s available in Japan, France and Spain. But the scheme has health officials warning of addiction, and European leaders are demanding answers. 

The videos on the lite version are the same as those on TikTok, but as users continue to watch videos, they accumulate virtual coins that can be cashed in to use on sites such as Amazon and PayPal.

“You get 150 coins for every minute you’re connected,” said TikTok user Les Gens D’Internet in France. “And if you connect every day for 10 straight days, you get a bonus!”

The hype is high, but so far, TikTok itself has been silent. The company did not respond to The World’s interview request, nor has it said how many downloads TikTok Lite has had in its first month.

The controversial company has said it created the app to reach people in remote parts of the world where internet and cell phone coverage are weak. The “Lite” in TikTok Lite refers to the new app’s smaller bandwidth.

However, as TikTok seeks to expand its market, it risks losing a big one: Europe. 

“We have already launched formal proceedings against TikTok on the grounds of addictive or potentially addictive behavior,” said Johannes Bahrke, a spokesman for the European Commission. The Commission opened its case against TikTok in February, accusing it of failing to keep kids off its platform.

TikTok Lite, with its watch-and-reward system, is under even harsher scrutiny. 

It launched this month without presenting a risk assessment for mental health and addiction, as required by European law. According to Commission officials, TikTok claims to have the assessment in hand but says it hasn’t been able to share it for technical reasons. 

So, Bahrke said that TikTok was given a deadline of 24 hours to share the assessment. “On the grounds of protection of minors and the mental health of users,” he said.

But that deadline came and went, and still, TikTok isn’t talking.

The TikTok Inc. building is seen in Culver City, Calif., March 17, 2023.Damian Dovarganes/APFile photo

The Commission has now given TikTok until April 24 to explain itself. If it doesn’t, the Commission says it will suspend the app’s rewards section and freeze its coins. It would be the first such penalty against a social media platform since Europe passed a strict new law governing online services last August.

Some mental health workers in Spain welcome the crackdown. 

“The symptoms include a lack of emotional well-being and belonging, dissatisfaction with life and a rise in anxiety and depression,” said Jannira Becerril, a therapist at Centre Bonanova, a clinic in Barcelona. More and more adolescents are grappling with screen-time addiction, she said.

TikTok Lite is following the formula of other popular apps and online games, Becerril added, like Fortnite or Candy Crush.

“You’re being rewarded,” she said. “… whether it’s with virtual tokens or with more time on the platform.”

That’s essentially the app’s design — to give users’ brains a hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure.

“It leaves users more and more vulnerable to becoming addicted,” Becerril said.

As online influencers tout TikTok Lite as an easy way to get a paid side hustle, another issue pops up: It doesn’t actually pay very much. For a full hour engaged on TikTok Lite, users earn under a dollar.

If Europe does suspend this rewards system, TikTok Lite stands to lose a lot more than just its customers.

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