Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 5 May 2021


Kids on TikTok Find the Sunny App Has a Dark Side

Episode four of Foundering: The TikTok Story explains the disturbing things the app’s youngest users can be exposed to.

An attendee wearing a mask carries a camera during the TikTok Creator's Lab 2019 event hosted by Bytedance in Tokyo.
An attendee wearing a mask carries a camera during the TikTok Creator's Lab 2019 event hosted by Bytedance in Tokyo. Photographer: Shiho Fukada/Bloomberg

TikTok is known primarily as a launchpad for funny memes, dance routines and lip-synching videos. The company embraces that reputation with a tagline, “the last sunny corner on the internet.” But there’s a dark side to TikTok that engulfs some of the app’s youngest users.

Beneath the surface, TikTok also hosts videos promoting anorexia, bullying, suicide and sexual exploitation of minors. Highly personalized recommendations, driven by algorithms owned by the parent company ByteDance Ltd., often make it harder for parents to track what their children are seeing and for regulators to monitor what kids are being exposed to on the app.

“Parents think that TikTok has some redeeming values,” David Gomez, a school resource officer in Idaho, said on the fourth episode of Foundering: The TikTok Story. “Videos, lip syncing, singing, dancing around. OK. I see that stuff. But parents are just not understanding how many predators are on TikTok.”

A spokesperson for TikTok said the company is “deeply committed” to the safety of minors and that it continues to strengthen safeguards. In January, TikTok stopped allowing strangers to comment on videos posted by users under 16 years old. And it restricted the ability to download their videos and changed the default settings on kids’ accounts from public to private.

But the problems began years before TikTok even existed. Kids flocked to, the precursor to TikTok. Back then, one advertising executive called it “the world’s youngest social network” because its audience included elementary school students.

Safety advocates said TikTok for years prized expansion over the protection of minors. “Their company exploded in growth across the world, and they just didn’t prioritize child safety as they were growing,” said Dawn Hawkins, who runs an advocacy group called the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

Hawkins said she spent months helping an 8-year-old relative get inappropriate videos of him in his underwear taken down from TikTok. Hawkins acknowledged that TikTok recently made a number of sought-after improvements but said it’s still not a safe place for very young children to roam unmonitored.

— With assistance by Isabelle Lee

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