With over 800 million users vulnerable to harmful content, it is time for TikTok to step up and take greater responsibility in safeguarding their app.

The rise of TikTok was predictable. Facebook has been adopted by the middle-aged. Instagram has been abandoned by teenagers. TikTok’s rise in popularity is simultaneously complimented by the fall of previously popular social media sites.

I was determined not to get involved with TikTok. Mocking it as a site for 13-year-olds, I rejected all my friends’ efforts to convince me to download it. But as lockdown stretched into four months and I ran out of distractions, I crumbled. At first it was entertaining. The algorithm is scarily successful, tailoring your videos to the interests you show. However, this algorithm is also what renders TikTok a dangerous and potentially harmful site for its young, impressionable users.

The click cycle

After engaging with one video entitled ‘What I eat in a day’, my entire feed became clogged up by videos of impossibly thin girls eating impossibly small amounts of food. Unrealistic expectations are an unavoidable element of all social media sites. But the way TikTok operates allows you no escape from these expectations. There are thousands of videos in which people joke about snacking on ice or chewing gum all day in order to curb hunger. Whilst this may appear a harmless bit of banter, people struggling with physical insecurities may adopt these unhealthy habits.

TikTok is further problematic due to the reverence those that are slim and beautiful receive. The videos which show people eating three standard meals a day will receive under a thousand likes. Videos which show incessant exercise and dieting will consistently receive thousands. Although some may argue it is easy to avoid the darker sides of TikTok, for young girls and boys obsessing over their weight, their feeds will inevitably become a vicious cycle of videos romanticising undereating.

It is a common thread throughout social media that beauty correlates with success. Beauty also correlates with more followers, and so beauty translates to more influence. But a site where this influence is advertising an unhealthy lifestyle in order to achieve an unrealistic body image, cannot be seen as anything other than harmful.

The average TikTok user

TikTok has said that the safety and wellbeing of its users is its top priority. They have encouraged people to report insensitive and inappropriate videos. Yet, new videos are constantly being produced. It is seemingly impossible to completely eradicate all weight-loss content from TikTok. Videos such as ‘what I eat in a day — under 1200 calories edition’ are now seen as trends. Such trends inevitably contribute to the growth in eating disorders and insecurities. Statistics show that 41 per cent of TikTok users are 16-24. Eating disorders normally develop around the age of 16 years. When we put the two facts together, the potential for harm to young TikTok users is unthinkable.

I do not support the removal of all weight loss content from TikTok. There are some accounts which document real and healthy weight loss journeys. Florence Simpson a.k.a., Flo and her jeans, has over 600,000 followers. She consistently promotes a healthy lifestyle whilst reminding users to love themselves.

TikTok can be a force for good. But it has been turned into a site focused on competition. Girls compete over how small their waists are. They compete over how little they eat. This destructive competitive spirit resonates with too many on the app — regardless of whether you simply watch videos or make them. Charlie D’Amelio, a TikTok star with over 80 million followers, recently opened up about the constant body shaming and harassment she faces on the app.

With over 800 million users vulnerable to harmful content, it is time for TikTok to step up and take greater responsibility in safeguarding their platform. They cannot solely rely on users to report psychologically detrimental videos. They also cannot expect creators to stop producing what is, let’s face it, very marketable and viral content. They must therefore go back to their roots and fall back on their technology. Reworking the algorithm is the best way forward to suffocate a pernicious environment that breeds inescapable insecurity.

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