TikTok algorithm boosts posts about eating disorders, self-harm to teens, researchers say
Two-thirds of American teenagers use TikTok, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate
Researchers for a group dedicated to combating online "hate and disinformation" have published a study suggesting that the social media platform TikTok is promoting self-harm to teenage accounts through its algorithm system.
Researchers at the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate created TikTok accounts for fictional teen personas in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The researchers operating the accounts then "liked" videos about self-harm and eating disorders to see how TikTok’s algorithm would respond.
Within minutes, the platform’s algorithm began recommending content to the teenage accounts, showing them videos about losing weight and self-harm, including ones featuring pictures of models and idealized body types, images of razor blades and discussions of suicide.
When the researchers created accounts with user names that suggested a particular vulnerability to eating disorders — names that included the words "lose weight" for example — the accounts were fed even more harmful content.
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"It’s like being stuck in a hall of distorted mirrors where you’re constantly being told you’re ugly, you’re not good enough, maybe you should kill yourself," said the center’s CEO Imran Ahmed, whose organization has offices in the U.S. and U.K. "It is literally pumping the most dangerous possible messages to young people."
A spokesperson for TikTok told Fox News Digital that the findings by the researchers do not accurately reflect the typical user habits on the platform since researchers quickly scrolled past subject matter not related to the topics they were looking for and only liked those specific posts.
TikTok also argued that the researchers don't distinguish between harmful and helpful content explaining that the platform promotes various posts that encourage people suffering from depression to seek help.
The company also said that a user’s account name should not affect what kind of content that user sees.
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"This activity and resulting experience does not reflect genuine behavior or viewing experiences of real people," a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement. "We regularly consult with health experts, remove violations of our policies, and provide access to supportive resources for anyone in need. We're mindful that triggering content is unique to each individual and remain focused on fostering a safe and comfortable space for everyone, including people who choose to share their recovery journeys or educate others on these important topics."
TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese company now based in Singapore, prohibits users who are younger than 13, and its official rules prohibit videos that encourage eating disorders or suicide. Users in the U.S. who search for content about eating disorders on TikTok receive a prompt offering mental health resources and contact information for the National Eating Disorder Association.
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Mental health experts have grown increasingly worried about the link between social media platforms and depression as studies have been published in recent years showing a link between increased social media use and depression in teens.
In Texas, a Republican lawmaker recently put forward legislation that would ban children under the age of 18 from signing up for social media apps, citing the "remarkable rises in self-harm, suicide, and mental health issues" that teenagers have experienced in recent years.
Lawmakers in the United States are pushing to ban TikTok over national security concerns, including in a bill passed through the Senate this week that would prevent government employees from using the platform, due to concerns that the Chinese government has access to user data.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital.
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The Center for Countering Digital Hate said in a guide posted online for parents that two-thirds of American teenagers use TikTok and that the average viewer spends 80 minutes a day on the platform.
The Associated Press contributed to this report