TikTok's algorithm pushes vulnerable kids toward risky content and risky behaviours, from eating disorders to self-harm.
The online world has never seen anything like video-sharing juggernaut TikTok. Proof? It has now been downloaded by some two billion people worldwide. Your child is probably one of them.
Young people, including very young children, gravitate to the app for all the obvious reasons: entertainment, information, laughs, social engagement and peer pressure.
The TikTok format - fast-moving, endlessly scrolling content in fun-size chunks - is especially appealing to kids and teens.
But there’s another reason an entire generation of young people is getting hooked. And that, according to new research, is an astonishingly agile algorithm that’s taking deadly aim at the most vulnerable.
Reporting on the phenomenon, ABC journalists have concluded that TikTok’s algorithm “risks distorting the way much of a generation is seeing the world.”
The algorithm at work
Here’s how it works:
On TikTok, users don’t choose what they watch (unless searching for specific hashtags). Instead, videos are served up continuously in an endless stream. Yet every user’s feed is unique. It’s also labelled “For You.”
When new users sign up, they’re asked to nominate categories of content that interests them. Using that info and other personal information gathered to create an account, the algorithm starts to do its thing.
It logs all your searches and shares and comments and follows. It tracks the times of day you’re online. It examines your facial data. If you’ve given access to your contacts list, it links your usage with those of your friends.
And it starts to sculpt your feed accordingly - slowly at first and then with greater and greater speed and more narrow focus, hurtling you in the direction it has deduced you ought to go, and essentially immersing you in a Tik-Tok-generated alternative universe.
If the algorithm has concluded you love ballet, or home-maintenance hacks - no big deal. You’ll just get more and more harmless, sometimes helpful content. If, however, it deduces that you may have an interest in health and fitness - and you happen to be a young woman with an average body shape - then things can get really out of hand.
How young people are "taught"
That’s exactly what happened to Lauren Hemmings. She followed a popular fitness and weight-loss influencer. Her videos showed her tracking her food intake and counting every calorie.
Not-so-fun fact: The hashtag “What I Eat in a Day” has more than 7 billion views on TikTok.
Suddenly, “a lot of the same pages kept on showing up,” Lauren told the ABC. “I had never really had that many negative thoughts about my body until I had someone saying, ‘I hated this body. I’d cry about this body every night.’
“I was no longer seeing funny dance videos or anything. It was just like this complete focus on that fitness and healthy lifestyle goal.”
That was the algorithm doing its work: in this case, nudging Lauren to participate in a dangerous viral trend that promotes eating disorders - namely an obsession with calorie counting. (Not-so-fun fact: The hashtag “What I Eat in a Day” has more than 7 billion views on TikTok.)
Four months later, Lauren had developed an eating disorder.
Were there other factors at play? Of course there were. Eating disorders are complex mind-body phenomena. But experts say social media are an increasing concern in their proliferating numbers in our community.
One recent study, for example, found the incidence of severe anorexia nervosa has trebled in the past three years.
Pushing kids to risky content
TikTok can literally teach young people how to have an eating disorder, says
Dr. Suku Sukunesan, a lecturer in Swinburne University of Technology’s business school, and an expert in social media and mental health.
What’s more, the algorithm can and does push vulnerable kids to even riskier content, including those that promote self-harm.
“It’s almost like a pit with no end.”
TikTok by the numbers
*Note that TikTok’s age verification procedures are notoriously ineffective. That means there’s no way of knowing these numbers accurately.
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