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Simpson Street Free Press

TikTok's Algorithm Targets Minors with Harmful Content

Falling prey to TikTok’s addictive algorithm and wasting two hours on the app is a common affliction shared by many---children, teens, and even adults. However, TikTok’s algorithm is far more dangerous than simply stealing your time: the app sends inappropriate, harmful, and sometimes even predatory content to minors.

Thirty-one automated accounts, registered fake users between the ages of 13-15, were created in an experiment by the Wall Street Journal. The goal was to discover how the TikTok algorithm pushed content to minors.

Results were clear: many of the users were quickly locked into one or two “interests” and immediately offered videos that predominantly catered to those interests -- even when not suitable for minors, such as drugs, alcohol, or sexual content.

One of the Journal’s minor accounts was shown 569 drug-related videos over the course of the study. Other accounts were shown videos promoting eating disorders, alcohol consumption, and videos that fetishized relationships between adults and minors.

Videos that were clearly marked for ‘adults only’ did not deter the algorithm from pushing this content to minors; one minor account was served around 80 videos flagged as 18+ by creators in a string of 200 posts. Across all of the Journal’s 31 minor accounts, nearly 2,800 “For You” videos were marked as adult only. (“For You” is the main feed customized for each user on TikTok.)

The TikTok app relies on an honor system to enforce restrictions: TikTok guidelines require users to be above 13 and obtain consent from parents if they are under the age of 18, but there is nothing stopping children and teenagers from lying about their age. A TikTok spokeswoman also revealed the app currently has no content filtration system to ensure minors only see appropriate content, though there is one under development.

With the rapid increase in popularity of the app, TikTok has moved towards an algorithm-based moderation platform, announcing the shift away from human monitors in June of 2021. Although this change in policy makes content removal more efficient, relying solely on algorithms for moderation reduces the platform’s ability to interpret the nuances often present in suggestive or other explicit content, forcing TikTok to choose between protecting minor users or over policing adult content.

[Sources: The Wall Street Journal; The New York Times]

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