Global: TikTok’s ‘For You’ feed risks pushing children and young people towards harmful mental health content

Duaa recently graduated with a Bachelor’s in Economics. She has worked with organizations including Amnesty International, UNCTAD, Talloires Network, Girls Human Rights Hub, Pakistan’s Human Rights Ministry, and Gallup, primarily on human rights and education, and she hopes to continue contributing to these areas through on-ground community engagement, policy & legal reform, and journalism.

TikTok’s Toll on Me 

My hands seem to have a mind of their own as they continue scrolling through video after video. Seconds spill into minutes spill into hours, but when sunlight slips into my room, I’m surprised: it all felt like seconds to me. My eyes are red from the screen, and I think any and all repercussions end there: a sleepless night and consequent fatigue for the day. But if I zoom out from my life until everything is a bird’s eye view, I’d get a fuller picture: how self-criticism has become my native language, how others’ validation (or lack thereof) shapes almost everything I think and feel, how almost nothing is stimulating or surprising anymore, how boredom and isolation are overwhelmingly familiar, how I feel numb, excluded, and disconnected more often than not. Meanwhile, TikTok’s ‘For You’ page continues to suck me in, optimized to maximize my engagement even as I feel like my well-being is subtly disintegrating.

TikTok, one of the many sensations of our generation. Enter app, and let the app do the rest as it pulls you into a world made just “for you” for hours on end. What could go wrong?

A platform designed to be hyper-personalized and addictive risks being a breeding ground for toxicity: children might view triggering content that can impact their mental health, and TikTok’s algorithm can potentially transform that viewing into an endless rabbit hole of similar content. So, what if our rights to privacy, health, and free-thinking hang by a thread, as long as it generates profit for our favorite multi-billion dollar app?

You might argue that TikTok responds to what we seem to love by drowning us in everything that bears resemblance. I would counter that love (especially one only skimming reality’s surface) can be misleading. How else would you describe the bubble that overly customized content could spin around you until you can’t think or feel beyond what you’ve always thought and felt? Given the fragility of human emotion, seeing even one distressing video can prove to be triggering. But in TikTok world, viewing that one video is a slippery slope to viewing one after the other. The algorithm takes views of mental health content to signify an interest in the topic that it can respond to by flooding a user’s feed with similar videos that could, according to Amnesty International’s research, romanticize self-harm and depressive thinking, aggravating psychological vulnerabilities.

Fragility becomes more fragile when there’s nothing to hold it up. And that’s exactly what happens when TikTok, with its built-in addictiveness, starts consuming our entire lives. Sleep, school, work, relationships, and hobbies dim against the alluring light of the screen, and suddenly, sacrificing all of them to watch “just one more video” becomes almost laughably effortless. After all, what’s more exhausting than life distracting us from TikTok?

Consent is only truly consent when anchored in free and informed choice. But the problem here (among many other problems) is that we never meaningfully made this choice. Although TikTok, like other apps, has terms and conditions that you technically “agree” to, they can be challenging to understand and are often not child-friendly. This leaves young people in the dark about how their data will be used and the business model that is built on the massive collection of users’ data. Alarmingly, the impact is disproportionate along geographic boundaries. While TikTok is being forced to rein in its extractive surveillance-based business model for children in Europe, where there is stronger regulation, it takes advantage of weaker laws or enforcement elsewhere, including in the Global South, by not extending the same protections to young people there at the cost of their rights.

In response to extensive research and young people’s concerns that have uncovered the unforgiving reality of TikTok, Amnesty International is urging the company to rectify its operations. TikTok needs to take responsibility and eliminate the harm entirely by adhering to Amnesty’s calls for a global ban on targeted advertising aimed at children; personalization that’s opted-in and based on child-friendly language, informed consent, and active two-way communication; and an introduction of daily limits.

Deleuze said, “The painter does not paint on an empty canvas, and neither does the writer write on a blank page; but the page or canvas is already so covered with preexisting, preestablished cliches that it is first necessary to erase, to clean, to flatten, even to shred, so as to let in a breath of air from the chaos that brings us the vision.” As we erase, clean, flatten, and shred layers of digital pain, we will soon be left with the space to breathe and the time to dream. So, if I close my eyes now, zoom out from the lives we could have until everything is a bird’s eye view, I’d get a fuller picture: how empathy has become our native language, how our diverse experiences and visions shape the world, how almost everything is informative and inspiring, how creativity and community are overwhelmingly familiar, and how we feel impassioned, included, and connected more often than not.

Check Also

Unlocking the Power of Positive Psychology: How to Improve Your Mental Well-being

Unlocking the Power of Positive Psychology: How to Improve Your Mental Well-being Positive psychology is …