This is true. Social media and TikTok in particular provide a means to speak truth to power directly, immediately and loudly. That’s not something that was available to older Americans when they were young. It’s not a coincidence that the “OK boomer” meme emerged on TikTok; the sharp, eye-rolling response was simple to append to cringey content from older users. Maybe not truth to power, necessarily, but not far from it.
After all, it’s still the case that older Americans hold disproportionate political and economic power, if not cultural power. That colors the current debate over potentially banning TikTok dramatically. It’s not only a fight over what TikTok does and a gulf in the perceived threat posed by the platform. It’s also a reflection of the fact that political power is wielded by a group that generally doesn’t use the platform.
It’s a microcosm of so many other fights: The future of the nation will affect younger Americans more than older Americans, but it’s older Americans who are making the decisions that will determine what that future looks like.
On Wednesday, The Washington Post released new polling data showing that views of a potential ban on TikTok correlate strongly to actual use of the platform. If you use TikTok a lot, you probably don’t want to see it banned. If you never use it, you probably do.
But our poll also made clear that use of the tool is disproportionately skewed young. Most adults under 35 use it; almost none of retirement age do.
Unsurprisingly, then: A plurality of younger Americans oppose a ban. A plurality of older Americans support a ban.
Recent polling conducted by YouGov for the Economist mirrors our findings. Usage of TikTok is much higher among younger Americans than older ones, for example. Use of Facebook is more consistent, though use of Instagram, a company under the same brand as Facebook that has implemented a TikTok-like video feed, also has a wide age gap. (Adults under 30 are about three times as likely to use Instagram as are those 65 and older.)
Interestingly, YouGov’s polling also found that views of TikTok as a national security threat — one of the central ostensible reasons that a ban is warranted — map less cleanly onto age divisions. But here again, older Americans were more likely to say that they thought the app was a national security threat.
That’s unquestionably related to views of China. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, spurring much of the concern about the app’s deployment in the United States. Younger Americans are less negatively inclined toward China than are older Americans.
In the Post’s polling, we asked specifically whether respondents were concerned about TikTok’s parent company being in China. Among younger Americans, views were split, though a majority indicated concern. Among older Americans, the responses were lopsided in favor of concern.
There some politics intertwined here, of course. Older Americans are more likely to get their news from cable television, and Fox News, the preferred station of older Republican viewers, has been talking about TikTok a lot more than its competitors.
One rationale is not hard to suss out. Attacking TikTok as somehow serving as an arm of the Chinese state (a theoretical claim denied by the company) allows the right to cast President Biden and Democrats as unwilling to protect national security. When Donald Trump attacked TikTok as president, one of his central aims was similar: He wanted to cast China as an adversary to demonstrate his strength.
So, views of TikTok and views of China are inextricable. Older Americans see China negatively and see TikTok the same way. (The graph below compares YouGov’s ally-or-enemy responses with a separate question on whether respondents view TikTok favorably or unfavorably.) Younger Americans see both more positively.
And of course, young people are more likely to use TikTok in the first place.
It is not the case, of course, that younger Americans are demanding that TikTok remain available or that they will take to the streets to object to a ban. Our polling found that 40 percent of adults under 35 oppose a ban but nearly 3 in 10 support one, with a third of that group unsure. It’s not clear that a ban would yield a significant political backlash; it might simply push creators and users to use Instagram more heavily.
The point, instead, is that decisions about TikTok’s future are overwhelmingly being made by people who don’t use the platform — the older Americans who still make up most of Congress. TikTok is a microcosm of a broader pattern in American power: younger Americans seeing decisions about their future being made by older generations who have different lived experiences than they do.