TikTok and Its Effects on Young People

Technology Policy Brief #106 | By: Steve Piazza | January 16, 2024
Photo taken from: www.today.com


Policy Summary

TikTok offers a number of thoughtful, well-stated guidelines and actions that promote safe and healthy participation on the popular social media platform. Those who choose to explore the platform’s policies are given detailed suggestions on being proactive, such as how to block their own access to a particular objectionable video creator by long pressing on a video. They also have the opportunity to report questionable or offensive material.

Other safeguards include content controls and restriction modes that can be self-imposed. In fact, for users 16 and under the default social setting is private, which allows a user to approve followers. Over 16, it’s set to public, though that can be changed at any time.

TikTok even offers support on a number of topics regarding well being. Users are provided clear language on substance-abuse, eating disorders, bullying and more. In some instances, users are encouraged to speak to someone for additional support.

Nonetheless, as with other social media environments, there are no guarantees protecting young people against harmful influences while using TikTok. Even such a thorough presence of policies such as TikTok’s cannot conceal the fact that there are many negative effects on the most vulnerable users.

Policy Analysis

TikTok ranks sixth as the most used social media platform behind YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and WeChat. As of 2022, TikTok reported 1.2 billion users, and by the fourth quarter of that year it had been downloaded over four billion times. According to Business of Apps, though it’s largest demographic is 25 to 34 years old, 44.1% of its total users are under 24 and of those under 17 the percentage is just over 20%

TikTok has a number of benefits for young users. Besides the entertainment value, the platform offers the opportunity for teenagers to feel part of a community of users, It also serves as a  means to help them understand the world they live in. It can serve as a resource for everything from providing insights on a wide array of emotional and mental health issues, as well as perspectives on many current events.

The main problem with TikTok is that it is also simply a social media platform, which means that like its competitors, it employs algorithms designed to influence choices to keep users engaged. That might not be so bad if a kitten popping out of a cardboard box results in similar content being offered. It’s when a user chooses a video more serious in nature that is of concern.

Without notice, the recommendations can end up leading to a series of videos that are inappropriate or dangerous. It’s possible that an unsuspecting viewer witnesses a barrage of negative content ranging from disinformation to cyber bullying. In some instances, users are even provided links/passwords to private portals of videos displaying violence or pornography.

Though not unique to TikTok, the mere convenience of endless swiping through countless videos of any kind that can leave younger users spellbound for large amounts of time is bad enough. But succumbing to the platform’s seemingly endless journey down a rabbit hole of adverse content can lead to serious issues, such as a negative self-esteem and/or body image, and eventually alienation. It’s unsettling to think that something as simple as curiosity can lead to feelings of isolation, which sadly puts some on the path to loneliness, depression, and possibly suicide.

According to Statista, despite the fact that over 70% of individuals considered Gen Z, Millennial, and Gen X believe that TikTok is addictive, only an average of just under 25% of these three groups feel the platform has negative mental health effects. Such dissonance is not atypical for active users participating voluntarily in social activities, cyber or not.

Of course, it doesn’t help that users are easily drawn to the content they find appealing, and for youngsters even more so. Neither does the  large amount of screen time that makes their experience increasingly open to hazards. Minimizing usage might have some effect, but nothing short of abstinence is 100% protected. Of course this is not realistic, particularly for current returning users. Therefore, it’s up to the platforms themselves to continue to develop a way to stand behind the integrity of their products and protect children.

With an unwieldy number of users, TikTok already faces an uphill battle employing a security system that works effectively to protect its users. But with all the protections in place, workarounds still exist and savvy youngsters know how to exploit the loopholes. Perhaps AI designed safeguards are necessary to correct this. The caveat, of course, is that it’s the manipulated algorithms, something that’s at the very core of artificial intelligence, that got us here in the first place.

Engagement Resources

  • Click on the following link to visit the TikTok Safety Center and review the guidelines firsthand: https://www.tiktok.com/safety/en/
  • The Child Rescue Coalition has a concise list of ways to help keep users safe located here.

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