Credit: Kon Karampelas via Unsplash

TikTok: it’s time to protect users

By Michael Wright

Michael Wright compares the toxic side of Tumblr to the appearance of similar tropes on TikTok. 

Content Warning: Contains references to suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders. 

It’s likely that you’ve heard about TikTok; but what exactly is TikTok? The answer is not as simple as it may seem. If you google it, you’ll read that it’s a “short-form video-based social networking app targeted to under 30s.” Ask parents, and you’ll probably get a deluge of complaints about how the app is hoovering up all of their children’s free time. Ask a user and they’ll explain it’s an app where people dance and lip-sync to viral songs. It can seem quite confusing – but the answer seems to lie in the app’s all-powerful, omnipresent artificial intelligence (AI) which has total control over selecting videos that users see.

Unlike most other social networking apps, TikTok decides what you see, not the other way around. Most of the time on the platform is spent scrolling through the for-you-page, an endless jet of content that users can scroll down for hours. When an account is first created, the AI spends time figuring out exactly what hyper-specific blend of videos it thinks the user will engage with most. This can range from innocent dancing videos to tutorials on how to manifest your every desire. There is, however, a darker side to TikTok.

It may seem like the dark ages, but it was only around 2015 that Tumblr was the number one website for anything to do with music, aesthetics, and self-exploration. Remember when pastel coloured Polaroid cameras, The 1975, and pouring water on CDs were all the rage? As many who used Tumblr will remember, the eclectic melting pot of ideas, music, and aesthetics was often a veneer for a much more dangerous side of the website than the core content that users logged in for.

Tumblr often provided a safe space for communities when others rejected them. Thousands of support groups, self-help forums, and blogs formed to help people navigate a world that often seemed as though it wasn’t theirs. This area of Tumblr is perhaps best known for its cross-section of discussions about mental health, sexuality, and gender. However, the anonymous nature of Tumblr often allowed dangerous and toxic ideas to spread. Many accounts on the platform regularly posted damaging content relating to suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders. Perhaps the most infamous of these was the “pro-ana” movement, which morphed from a seemingly supportive community to one which encouraged disordered eating. Moderation of the platform often took a backseat, allowing echo-chambers to cascade out of control and spill over the fine line between acceptance and promotion.

Tumblr was frequently host to the battleground of the intersection between sexuality and gender, and politics. However, it too often fell victim to its own touted values of self-expression and open-mindedness, allowing hateful and toxic interactions to become the most viral on the website. Discussion on Tumblr felt less oriented around meaningful interaction and dialogue, and more geared toward dangerous feedback loops and endless ideological wars. It does not feel like an exaggeration to suggest that Tumblr was responsible for many of the most ingrained toxic trends and ideas in our generation.

Tumblr may seem like the distant past, but there has been a worrying resurgence of old Tumblr-esque trends on TikTok. Recently, users have reported seeing a video with tens of thousands of likes appearing on their for-you-page, which promoted dangerous pro-ana content.  Among the kaleidoscope of videos, there has also emerged a new trend of mental-health-related TikToks, which seems more like an endless rabbit hole of jumbled and chaotic content rather than a place to find help. Sitting alongside this genre of videos is a new resurgence of debate around “micro labelling,” which is a topic centered on more specific labels of sexuality and gender. Unfortunately, the discussion usually descends into name-calling and overblown criticism directed towards those who are questioning their identity, regardless of the merits of either side’s argument.

The crux of the issue with both TikTok and Tumblr is not that they provide forums for communities to engage with and help one another; it is that too often trends on each platform present themselves as single sources of truth, which has serious implications for content covering sensitive topics to do with identity and mental health. This is especially concerning given that a huge proportion of TikTok’s users are going through key formative moments in their lives, with many starting secondary school or transitioning from school to university. With increasing reports of shock content slipping past the moderation system, worrying trends relating to mental health, and a resurgence of Tumblr-centric debate, TikTok must assert more oversight on its own platform, take responsibility for the videos which it promotes to users, and help prevent a fresh mental health crisis among its users.


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