Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Tick tock for TikTok

The platform is endangering young people

Artillery Row

Parents used to worry about which of their children’s friends might be a bad influence. Now they have a simpler answer: their smartphone. 

With the wide-reaching, instantaneous nature of social media, this trend is unavoidable. I am deeply concerned about how the dopamine drugs of Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat will affect our children. They will grow up in a world where social media is all they have ever known.

The findings in a study conducted by STEM4 for young people aged 12 to 21 years old concluded that social media represents “a significant risk to the current and future health of today’s young generations”. The statistics are disturbing. Four in ten of those questioned conveyed that they are in mental distress. Of the children and young people questioned, nearly half explained how they have become socially withdrawn, stopped socialising completely, begun excessively exercising or self-harmed because they experience regular bullying or trolling online for their physical appearance. When bullying occurs in school, it no longer ends when you get home. It is always present — buzzing away on your phone. 

Kids as young as two are attracting 15 million followers

These apps have more insidious dangers too. TikTok, for example, can capitalise on your data. On the surface, it may seem like an innocent meme-sharing fad, but it is more than that. When you scroll, you are giving TikTok access to your location and your network of friends. This accumulated data is sent to ByteDance — a Chinese state-controlled firm that owns TikTok. All Chinese companies are obliged to sign up to Article 7 of the National Intelligence Law, which requires them to hand over any data to the government if it asks for it. This includes your data if you are using the platform. As Alicia Kearns, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Good Morning Britain last month, data distributed back to TikTok could be tracked, held and even used against you in the future. (TikTok denies that they would agree to this.)

Not only is TikTok hoarding your data, but the video-sharing platform is distorting our healthy boundaries between the private and the public. We have seen many child stars rise to fame with the unrestricted use of the platform, making viral video content for millions of unknown users. A revealing expose from the New York Post found that child stars are raking in up to $250,000 per month. Even kids as young as two are attracting more than 15 million followers. Parents — you are capitalising on the vulnerability and innocence of your child for your own financial gain. You have absolutely no idea who is watching and enjoying your two-year-old’s content. What on Earth is wrong with you? 

Research has revealed that TikTok algorithms will promote content that poses acute dangers for young people using the platform. This includes dangerously restrictive diets, pro-self harm content, and media romanticising suicide, if users indicate a preference for such material — even if they are registered as under 18. 

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate set up TikTok accounts across the UK, US, Canada and Australia, all registered as belonging to 13-year-olds. CCHD created “standard” and “vulnerable” accounts. The latter included suggestive terms like “loseweight” in their usernames, to reflect research that social media users in search of eating disorder content will often choose usernames with related language. The CCDH’s research revealed that content relating to body image, mental health and eating disorders was shown to “vulnerable” accounts three times more than to standard accounts on the platform. On average, these accounts were shown self-harm or eating disorder videos every 206 seconds. For those accounts that were “vulnerable”, the explore page content was even more extreme, including depictions of self-harm and young people sharing with their followers their plans to kill themselves. 

She told me that TikTok was the cause of her eating disorder

Do you remember the workout crazes during lockdown, with many planning to use their time in isolation to become even “better” versions of themselves when the world opened back up? This included a close friend of mine, who was in perfect health, using social media to find out more about looking after your body. She described to me how she got addicted to TikTok’s content with depictions of “calorie counting”, content creators sharing the small portions of food that they would eat in a day, and ways to keep fit and healthy to lose weight. This spiralled out of control to the point that she was hospitalised several times and almost died due to her anorexia. I remember seeing her after the lockdown had ended, and I did not recognise the girl in front of me. She told me that TikTok was the cause of her eating disorder — the platform had promoted pro-anorexia content to an unavoidable scale. She is currently rehabilitating after her fourth visit to the hospital.

Content on TikTok can actively encourage users to put other people at risk as well. Let’s talk about “rape day”. Did your jaw drop? Mine certainly did when this trend appeared on my explore page. A recent trend has been circulating on the platform that 24 April is “rape day”, encouraging young women to “watch their backs” as boys go out in groups to sexually assault and rape women. 

As I investigated further, related videos started to appear back-to-back on my feed promoting the execrable festivities. There are thousands of “rape day” videos with predominately young women talking about the day itself and warning others to stay safe — yet the original video cannot be identified, and it may not even exist in the first place. Regardless of that fact, the hashtag #April24 had been viewed more than 118.2 million times in 2021 alone. The millions of users promoting this trend have subsequently created crime as a result of women trying to defend themselves, such as an 11 year old schoolgirl taking two knives to her school over her fear of being raped. It perpetuates the most heinous culture; and TikTok should take responsibility. “Content” which only exists to spread fear and provoke trauma should not be allowed to circulate.

These are real stories. These are real people impacted by the toxic nature of the platform. TikTok exposes young people to predators, platforms dangerous content, and puts your data at risk. Both our children and our national security are endangered. Should TikTok be banned? It’s hard to believe that easy access to cooking videos and kitten memes can make up for these risks.

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