A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal reported that TikTok algorithm directed kids as young as 13 to videos that promoted sexual content, drugs, and alcohol. The investigation, by the Journal, said that a 13-year-old searched ‘OnlyFans’ and was able to watch quite a few videos including a couple that sold pornography.
When the same teenager checked the for you page on TikTok which is similar to a Twitter feed, the teenager could access more content that was sexually explicit. The content that appears on the for you page is similar to what a user views the most often or what a viewer spends time watching as the algorithm is set to display recommendations as per previous searches.
So, if a user spends time on watching sexual content, the short form video app keeps on showing more of such content. The age of the viewer mentioned in their profile makes no difference to the content offered.
The investigation did not include an actual teenager, but a series of bots were used to check the recommendations of TikTok. The ages in the profile ranged from 13 to 15 and the research was conducted to check whether the app differentiates between the content it show to adults and to kids. It did not.
The WSJ reporters sent these videos, which numbered almost a thousand, filled with sexual content, drugs, and adult related content to TikTok. The Journal reported that 225 of them were removed immediately. A TikTok spokesperson told them that other videos had been restricted and would not be recommended to young viewers, but no numbers were revealed by the company.
A TikTok spokesperson told the Daily Mail that although the activity and resulting experience of those bots in no way represented the behavior and viewing of a normal person, they were continually working to improve their systems.
The spokesperson added that they were reviewing the app and were looking at preventive measures that would also stop highly unusual viewing habits from “creating negative cycles” especially for their younger users and that they cared for their wellbeing and would invest more, so that there would be age-appropriate content.