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Unraveling the Dark Side of TikTok: A Parent's Guide to Navigating the Algorithmic Maze

Mon Oct 09 2023

Screenshot of the Wall Street Journal website article titled "TikTok Feeds Teens a Diet of Darkness"

The TikTok Conundrum

The allure of TikTok, the popular China-owned social video platform, has captivated millions, especially the younger generation. However, a recent exposé by Julie Jargon, a Family & Tech Columnist for the Wall Street Journal, sheds light on the platform's darker side, raising concerns about self-harm, sad-posting, and disordered-eating content that pervades the app.

The Growing Chorus for a TikTok Ban

Jargon reports a growing chorus of calls to ban TikTok in the U.S., citing fears of compromised data security. Government leaders are pushing to keep TikTok away from schools, public workers, and entire states due to concerns that user data might fall into the wrong hands. However, the article suggests that the more significant threat may lie not in data privacy but in the power of TikTok's algorithm, especially for parents.

Algorithmic Perils: A Parent's Nightmare

A recent study, as highlighted in the Wall Street Journal, found alarming results when researchers created fictitious accounts for 13-year-olds. The accounts were bombarded with videos related to eating disorders, body image, self-harm, and suicide. Despite TikTok's promises to enhance parental controls and create a more balanced algorithm, the study indicates that the experience for young teens remains largely unchanged.

Psychological Impact on Teens: A Call for Awareness

Numerous studies support the notion that what teens see on social media can have a profound impact on their psychological well-being. From the development of physical tics to the consumption of content promoting self-harm, the implications are significant. The American Psychological Association, recognizing this, has issued new recommendations urging parents to monitor their children's social media use actively.

TikTok's Defense and Controversies

TikTok spokespersons argue that the platform employs over 40,000 people to moderate content and has removed millions of posts violating community guidelines. However, controversies persist, with accusations that TikTok's algorithm still leads users, especially teens, to potentially harmful content.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate's Findings

The Center for Countering Digital Hate conducted a revealing experiment, creating fake teen accounts that were flooded with videos about suicide, eating disorders, and mental health. Disturbingly, videos related to these sensitive topics appeared every 39 seconds on the accounts' For You pages. While TikTok removed flagged videos after the findings were published, the accounts posting the material remained active.

Policing Content: A Daunting Task

The challenges of policing content on a platform with over a billion monthly users are undeniable. However, critics argue that there's a stark difference between eliminating harmful content and inadvertently promoting it through algorithms.

What Parents Can Do: A Practical Guide

  1. Watch What Your Kids Watch: Pediatric psychologists recommend actively engaging with your teen's For You page to identify potentially harmful content.
  2. Set up Family Pairing: Use TikTok's Family Pairing feature to restrict age-inappropriate content and limit screen time.
  3. Filter the Feed: Enable filters to block videos containing specific words or hashtags. Teens can also tap "not interested" to personalize their content.
  4. Refresh the Feed with Caution: Teens who find their feeds problematic can refresh them without creating new accounts. However, they must be mindful of the content they engage with to avoid falling into new algorithmic rabbit holes.

Navigating the TikTok Terrain

As TikTok continues to be a dominant force in the social media landscape, it's imperative for parents to be vigilant. The Wall Street Journal's report highlights the urgent need for a collective effort from parents, tech companies, and regulators to ensure the well-being of the platform's youngest users. In a world where algorithms wield significant influence, responsible use and active parental involvement are crucial for steering teens away from the potential hazards that lurk in the shadows of TikTok.

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