Video-sharing app TikTok was founded in 2016 but has blown up in recent months, with everyone from Ariana Grande to LeBron James joining in on the fun. The bulk of its users are young, which is not unusual. In the past, many of the world’s social media stars – think Vine, music.ly – have been teens. With 60% of its users aged between 16 to 24, TikTok is no exception. Its environment, however, is unique.
While growth on platforms like Instagram and Youtube is a slow process, the TikTok celebrity can be created overnight. The straightforward interface for video creation and ‘For You’ homepage that presents users with content from all over the world makes it much easier to achieve popularity and notoriety here than anywhere else. As a result, many have flocked to the app to compete for the highly coveted prize of going viral, foregoing privacy settings in order to make sure their content is seen. On the fast track to online fame, clout overrides common sense and provocative content slips between the cracks.
If you use the internet – which you do, because you’re here – it’s likely you’ve seen a TikTok dance challenge. It’s exactly what it sounds like: dance routines performed to catchy tunes. They belong to the lighthearted side of TikTok, along with games, lip syncs and creative comedy that I too find genuinely amusing.
On the flip side, harmful and blatantly offensive content is marauded as simply another innocent challenge. The “Penny Challenge” encouraged users to wedge a penny between their phone charger and an electric outlet to see sparks fly, prompting multiple fire departments to speak up because starting a fire is not only illegal but dangerous. (In other earth shattering news, 1 + 1 = 2.) There’s the “Skullbreaker Challenge”, where two people trick a third into jumping then kick their legs out from under them, causing their head to hit the floor. For further evidence of humanity’s ever-shrinking wisdom, see the “Cha Cha Slide Challenge”, where participants veer into the wrong traffic line in an attempt to perform the dance move with their car.
Elsewhere, overtly racist challenges encourage slapstick performances of cultural stereotypes, like pretending to place a dog in the oven (Asians) or pick cotton (African Americans). And it was reported as recently as a few days ago that content promoting unsafe weight loss techniques is being widely circulated amongst the app’s young users, reinforcing negative food behaviours during a pandemic that’s exacerbating cases of disordered eating enough as it is.
The attention seeking behaviour that is normal on most social media platforms seems to get a megaphone on TikTok, with deliberate ‘shock value’ content amplified from illogical to cruel and downright illegal. Yet something more sinister under the surface lurks, the main subject of negative headlines thus far: child predators. The app’s young user base, lack of safety messaging and unregulated content prove a rather unnerving – and at worst, outright dangerous – combination. The privacy settings are easy to miss and come with no introduction; profiles are public by default. The “Foreigner Challenge” involved minors exposing themselves through explicit photos and videos while the song “Foreigner” by Pop Smoke played in the background.
But the specific problem with TikTok is the power it bestows to a particular demographic that is more likely to contain sexually suspect individuals, empowered by a culture of irony that labels them humorous rather than seeing them for what they are. This is perhaps best exemplified by the app’s ‘duet’ feature, which allows users to respond to other videos by adding to it a video of their own. (For example, someone may post a video of themselves dancing and another user can take that video and add themselves performing an action that corresponds.) It’s part of the increasingly popular genre of reaction comedy and a core part of the TikTok experience, but presents a new interaction between old and young that can be easily exploited. And when YouTube comedians poke fun at creepy TikTok users, they unintentionally bestow upon them additional significant influence.
The issue of exposure to harmful content on TikTok is heightened by the fact that, unlike other social media platforms, it remains relatively unmoderated. The app hands itself over to the user entirely, with terms and conditions that outline what not to do while failing to moderate when those things do happen. Nothing specifically within the app’s features promotes harm, but without support mechanisms nothing stops it either. Problematic content goes unregulated, enabling an environment where predators can thrive. Take my earlier mention of The Foreigner Challenge, for example: while Instagram disables hashtags linked to problematic content, TikTok allowed #theforeignerchallenge, with all its sexually explicit content, to remain.
A vulnerable, young audience is less protected here – but really, how can we protect them anywhere?
At this point, the internet is its own environment and operates unlike any environment we’ve ever witnessed before. It allows people to express themselves in brand new ways, for better and for worse. TikTok is just one of many eclectic online worlds that has attracted large swathes of children, albeit has done the least to protect them. The issue is more complex than it appears on the surface: how do we navigate the intricacies of living in the online world and the suitability of the internet for children? Tik Tok is simply the vehicle through which an important question plays out: how can we protect the most vulnerable in society?
Unsafe environments online are an inevitability and exist all around us. The solution is not to shut them down – another simply springs up in its place – but to work on increasing awareness through early education. Start with outlining privacy settings a little more obviously. Implement better policy when it comes to moderating content. Perhaps most important of all: teach children that people don’t need to have influence over their lives if they don’t want it to.