The Toxicity of TikTok


How the social media sensation thrives off the sexualisation of young girls and women.


Image source: Ira SwatiManish

In 2020, we lost connection to the places that define us, the people we love most and even, to ourselves. Global lockdowns, in the wake of COVID-19, forced us inside and we were confronted with unending isolation. It’s unsurprising then that social media apps, like TikTok, rushed to fill the void left by the disappearance of everyday life. As the mundanity of working from home set in, the often-hilarious short-form videos replaced our coffee breaks. Growing by a staggering 75%, according to influencer marketing agency Mediakix, TikTok now boasts an impressive 80 million daily viewers in the US alone, but could these videos, with their pop fuelled soundtracks, be concealing something far darker?

Yes, and I’ve been complicit in it.

Like many a bored millennial, I first came into contact with TikTok via Instagram. The iconic image of a grimacing Brittany Broski easily translated into memes about the pain of disappointing hook ups, Amazon delivery fees and the pandemic. She even seemed to summarise the anguish felt by protesters at BLM rallies, her face adorning multiple signs. They say that laughter is the best medicine and certainly, Broski provided the perfect antidote to COVID-19, if only momentarily. Just like a gateway drug, I found myself wanting more. Separated from my housemate and the rest of the world, I found myself watching endless compilations of TikTok videos. It helped to fill the endless hours that now stretched before me during the first lockdown. In addition, the short hit of video content felt very familiar for a woman who had grown up with Snapchat, Instagram and the now extinct Vine. It had the same banterous humour, life hacks and the all-important viral dance challenges, such as the now infamous Blinding Lights challenge.


An Instagram post by Brittany Broski.

It is fragile self-esteem that predators often rely on.

In TikTok’s defence, it is proactively working to protect its young audience. In the latter half of 2019, TikTok reportedly removed 49,247,689 videos which violated its community standards - with an impressive 89.4% being removed before being viewed. Of that figure, only 24.8% affected minor safety with content showing drug and alcohol misuse, as well as sexually explicit videos. As recently as January 2021, TikTok introduced enhanced privacy settings for 13-15 year olds which aims to limit their exposure to harm online. Although these efforts are to be commended, there are still shortfalls. Dance challenges, including those featuring adolescents, are allowed to remain as they are a huge source of revenue. This is despite the morally grey area they inhabit. Thus, it is left to caregivers to determine what is acceptable, despite many being unsure of how to support young people, both technically and emotionally. With more adults joining the app following successive lockdowns, TikTok is no longer the domain of the teen and will inevitably have to adjust to this new norm.

Reporting of these videos in the media is similarly problematic, with many profiting in the process. Tabloids, such as The Sun, proudly adorn themselves with salacious headlines and blurred but provocative images of underage victims. The outrage expressed in these articles feels performative at best. It is at odds with the images of school uniform clad minors, by-lines about “sextortion” and the graphically detailed sexual experiences. This inevitably only serves to facilitate the patriarchy, male gaze and in turn, exploitation itself. Comments by readers, often middle aged males drawn in by the headlines, fail to understand victims and the nuances behind uploading these videos. Slut shaming is rampant, as is victim blaming, and thus the cycle goes on. Like the worst true crime documentaries, delight is found in violence perpetrated against women while its creators ardently claim to seek justice, so how do we discuss the potential pitfalls of social media? How do we best protect young girls and women online?

Quite simply, it is by being an ally.

Rather than shaming, we need to recognise that sexual exploration is part of adolescence. It certainly was for me. Like many British women who grew up in the 00s, I have hazy memories of flicking through More! to see “Position of the Fortnight”, its Pepto-Bismol pink illustration seared into my mind forever more, hurriedly shoving the well-thumbed copy back into the magazine rack as my mum arrived with a trolley filled with the weekly shop. I was fourteen. At sixteen, I’d excitedly document how womanly my body was becoming with countless duck faced selfies, all lovingly taken on my phone. The lure of uploading them to social media and receiving likes was palpable. I now recognise just how easily my fragile self-esteem could have been exploited. Thankfully, I was left unscathed by it all - bar a few awkward photos of me and my Twilight posters. The desire to be seen and validated online is something I still battle with to this day, but as part of the first generation to grow up online, it is our duty to warn the next of its pitfalls and support them where we can. Therefore, I will not criticise young women and girls for seeking validation and exploring their sexuality online. They have simply emulated the generation before them and aspire to become like the influencers, who bombard their social media feeds. Though I have an admittedly uneasy relationship with influencers and question their role in perpetuating patriarchal norms, how these women utilise their sexuality should not be condemned either. They have a right to use their bodies however they see fit. Instead, we should encourage greater discussion. Without reproaching or infantilising, we need to support young women in questioning their sexuality and media presence. How comfortable are they with their content being available to the public? Are they aware of the risks involved? Is this truly how they wish to be viewed or are they seeking approval from their peers? In doing this, we can begin to break down male gaze in the media, as well as inherent gender norms. More importantly though, we can help to foster healthy self-esteem in young women and girls.

It is, by no means, an easy task, but in supporting others, we may stumble upon our own self-worth.