TikTok pulls feature from Lite app in EU over addiction concerns

TikTok suspended a gamification feature in the European Union following an intervention by the bloc. With attention on TikTok’s growing pile of US legal woes, the announcement went mostly unnoticed when it occurred late local time Wednesday.

TikTok’s move came just two days after the EU opened an investigation into a so-called “task and reward” mechanism on the TikTok Lite app, citing concerns over an addictive design that could pose a mental health risk for young people. The feature allows users to earn points for doing things like watching and liking TikTok videos. ByteDance, TikTok’s parent, launched this version of TikTok Lite in France and Spain earlier this month.

Under the EU’s rebooted online governance and content moderation rulebook, the Digital Services Act (DSA), TikTok has a legal obligation to mitigate systemic risks in areas like child safety and mental health. Yet it failed to produce a risk assessment report on the feature when the bloc’s enforcers came knocking.

This is a big deal as the company could face large penalties under the DSA — of up to 6% of its global annual turnover — if it’s found to have broken the EU’s rules.

In a statement posted on X yesterday, TikTok claimed it’s “voluntarily suspending” the rewards feature in the region to address concerns. However, on Monday, the Commission signalled it was preparing to force TikTok’s hand, saying it was minded to use interim measures powers contained in the DSA to close down the app while it conducts an investigation into the feature.

The EU gave TikTok two days to provide arguments against an enforced shutdown. In the event, TikTok opted to preempt enforcement by announcing a “voluntary” suspension.

The development underlines how even the threat of interim enforcement can pack a punch that forces platform giants to rethink. (We’ve seen this sort of thing before in relation to similar powers contained in the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation for example — such as a decision by Google, back in 2019, to halt human review of audio snippets captured by its voice AI after a data protection authority had informed Google of an intention to use an urgency proceeding to order it to stop processing the data.)

This familiar crisis PR tactic aims to get ahead of the negative publicity associated with an enforced shutdown by taking action ahead of a formal order.

Nonetheless, the EU is taking the win: Responding to TikTok’s announcement with a counter post on X, the bloc’s internal-market-commissioner-cum-internet-sheriff, Thierry Breton, warned: “Our children are not guinea pigs for social media.”

Breton went on to write that he “takes note” of TikTok’s suspension of the reward program for the Lite app in the EU, adding: “The cases against TikTok on the risk of addictiveness of the platform continue.”

TikTok was contacted for confirmation on the status of the TikTok Lite app in France and Spain. As the name suggests, TikTok Lite is an alternative TikTok app for users who have older phones or who mostly connect to 2G or 3G networks.

The EU has two DSA probes open on TikTok: The first, announced back in February, is looking into a broad sweep of suspected non-compliance in areas including addictive design, child protection, ads transparency and data access for researchers. The second, announced earlier this week, is focused on TikTok Lite.

Still, Elon Musk-owned X was the first very large online platform to go under DSA investigation back in December, just a few months after the late August compliance deadline had kicked in. That investigation also remains ongoing.

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