A new 24-minute documentary published on YouTube by Bloomberg Originals highlights the influence that TikTok has over vulnerable young minds, specifically those with eating disorders, depression, and/or suicidal ideations.
TikTok was continuously sending a 16y/o boy videos of suicidal people in his “For You” feed.
The boy ended up killing himself, which left his family baffled. His mom found all of this on his phone after his death.
PLEASE get your kids off TikTok. Stand up for your kids, even if… https://t.co/3RZSeaq2B3
— The Kate Awakening (@kate_awakening) May 1, 2023
One of the children highlighted, a teenager named Katie, suffered from a life-threatening illness that presumably was related to an eating disorder influenced by content shared to her “For You” section on TikTok. Her feed would show videos about anorexia and other eating disorders. Katie acknowledged that TikTok came pre-installed on her first phone and does not recall ever searching TikTok for that type of content.
Another one of the subjects of the documentary, Charles Bahr, was actually an employee at TikTok at the age of 18. He talked about his own TikTok feed being “so dark and sad” that he had to create another account to use anytime he entered a workshop.
“TikTok collects a lot of data when it comes down to the videos that you consume and all the metrics that you give to TikTok by consuming more and more content on the platform. The most important factor for the algorithm clearly is watch time, but it also comes down to a topic called retention, which is based on the interactions that you give to a certain video and to a certain channel.
I personally made an experiment where I opened up a new TikTok account and tried to check on how much time would it take to open up an account that’s just filled with sad quotes. And it took me 17 minutes to have a pure negative feed and you really see that within the first 15 to 20 minutes that you interact with the algorithm, you will decide what is going to be distributed to your own feed in the next years on TikTok.”
Bahr brought up this issue in a presentation in November 2020 by showing samples of the dark content that would appear on his feed. He did not get as much as a reply to his concerns. Bahr claims that, “TikTok is aware of content that is around suicide, depression and mental health issues, and they want to address it internally, but only under the circumstance that you don’t spend less time on the platform.”
Bahr was fired from the platform for an unrelated alleged misuse of company tools, which he denies. He has since sued the company for wrongful dismissal and settled out of court.
The documentary then focuses on Chase Nasca, a 16-year old boy who tragically took his own life after he received “1000s [of] unsolicited videos of violence and suicide” according to news.com.au. The article states:
Dean and Michelle Nasca, whose 16-year-old son, Chase, took his own life last year after receiving more than 1000 unsolicited videos of violence and suicide, openly sobbed as US politician Gus Bilirakis recounted their son’s tragic death.
“Your company destroyed their lives,” Bilirakis told TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about the teenager’s parents.
“His ‘For You’ page was sadly a window to discover suicide. It’s unacceptable, sir!”
In the documentary, Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney for Social Media Victims Law Center, and host Olivia Carville discussed what Nasca was searching on TikTok compared to what TikTok was showing him:
“In January, you’ve got ‘bench press tips’, ‘kitchen hacks’, ‘motivational speech’, ‘gym motivation’, ‘Batman.’ That same day, this is what TikTok chooses for him:”
“‘find what makes you happy’, ‘I don’t want to live’, ‘sleeping is not enough, I want to die.’”
Nasca’s parents are suing Chinese-owned company, claiming their son was “targeted, overwhelmed and goaded”, according to the News.com article.
From the complaint:
“To maximize user engagement and increase profits, TikTok creates and co-creates such content and deliberately targets children in the United States with violent, dangerous, extreme and psychologically disturbing content from which they can’t look away.”
As the documentary winds down, Carville asks Marquez-Garrett “What scares you the most?” She responds:
Any possibility that we can’t create change. I don’t know what kind of world we live in where this continues now that people are finally starting to realize what these companies are doing. That scares me the most. It’s the possibility that we cannot force these companies to make these products safer for kids. They know the product’s harmful. They know its hurting kids. And they’re still distributing it to virtually every child that they can get it in their hands.”
This isn’t the first time, however, that a social media company has been scrutinized for intentionally manipulating news feeds of users. In 2012, Facebook was accused of experimenting on over 700,000 users by controlling their news feeds for a week long period without their knowledge.
According to an article from the BBC, the experiment was in coordination with two US universities and used to determine whether “exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours.”
As the spotlight on TikTok grows, Congress has introduced the RESTRICT Act, which would allow the Secretary of Commerce “to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries, and for other purposes” and to give broad discretion to the Attorney General, Director of National Intelligence, the Secretary of the Treasury, or the Federal Elections Commission as to whom is subject to this law.