Great Britain

How ‘supercharged catnip’ TikTok is fuelling the sexualisation of young girls and exploitation of teens

YOUNG girls filming themselves getting changed in school and then publicly sharing the videos might sound like a parent's worst nightmare — and a predator's dream.

But that's exactly what happens on TikTok, where teens post sexualised content of themselves on a daily basis to an anonymous audience of millions who can easily download and share the children's content.

There is concern owing to countless videos of underage girls detailing sexual experiences being uploaded to TikTok, as well as explicitly talking about sexual desires for their teachers.

While some of the content may seem harmless when shared between friends, these videos are publicly accessible to anyone with the app.

And this is at the same time girls as young as nine are becoming addicted to porn and predators are privately asking Year 6 girls to send them naked photos in horrific "sextortion" crimes.

But for the girls using TikTok, which allows suggestive content to be encouraged with 'hearts', the approval they receive can feel rewarding — with one expert likening it to "supercharged catnip" for teens.

In the US, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has even go so far as to list TikTok on its 2020 'Dirty Dozen' list of mainstream companies facilitating sexual exploitation.

"All kinds of social media can be used to sexually groom or harm or traffic children or adults, but TikTok is particularly ineffective at creating a safe online space,” says Haley McNamara, Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at NCOSE.

Teens naturally interested in risks and sex

As part of our TikTok Time Bomb series we found countless examples on the platform of girls in school uniforms, indicating they are aged 15 and under.

Some of the sexualised videos seen by Sun Online are too graphic to publish but they have thousands of hearts on them — which users give to each other's clips to show praise.

Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist who has extensively researched social media, says this system on TikTok is artificially amplifying a natural phenomenon.

"Teenagers are naturally interested in taking risks and they’re naturally interested in finding out about sex and discovering themselves as sexual beings and exploring that,” she tells Sun Online.

"They are open to flattery, they are open to seduction, they are open to the verification they get from the hearts they get and the likes they get.

TikTok Time Bomb

TikTok has spread like digital wildfire, snapping up over 1.5 billion users since its global launch three years ago — including millions in the UK.

On the surface, the world's fastest growing social media platform shows short clips of  lip-syncing to songs or showing off dance moves but there’s a far more sinister side. 

It’s become a magnet for paedophiles as well as a hotbed for violent and extremist content, with TikTok predators exploiting the platform's young user base and lax security to prey on the vulnerable.

We've seen kids as young as eight being groomed on TikTok, while other creeps take advantage of young girls posting sexualised content of themselves on the platform.

And that's especially worrying on a site which is attracting millions more children every year, with 53 per cent of kids now owning a smartphone by the age of seven.

That's why we launched our TikTok Time Bomb series — to make sure parents are aware of the risks their kids are being exposed to, and what they can do to better protect them. 

Everyone agrees that social media can be a force for good, but it has to be used the right way and with proper controls in place.

We want TikTok to better moderate its content so that it’s not being left to kids to protect themselves online.

"That kind of approval that says, ‘You are attractive and we like you’ — that’s catnip, of course, to teenagers and that’s a developmentally normal thing.”

But Dr Kasket says combining an adolescent desire for approval with a global digital platform can massively soup up girls' encouragement to post sexual content.

"It’s a supercharged catnip for teenagers," she says, "Because how much validation is there if you’re not feeling sure about yourself or if you’re wanting to know ‘will people like me and am I popular’ and there’s thousands upon thousands of approval ratings?”

'It paints a picture of women being objects'

Although a lot of the content girls share on the platform is innocent enough in the eyes of their friends, it can take on a much more sinister dimension in the wrong hands.

Katy Levin says her daughters Lucie, 12, and Orli, nine, will often make and share videos of themselves instantly changing from their pyjamas to their outfits to wear throughout the day.

"I think it's quite sweet," Katy tells Sun Online. "But I’ve never thought about it from an outsider's point of view, what other people are looking at.

"I see my daughter in a T shirt and a pair of shorts and don't think anything of it, but I guess some people might be on there who are looking at that in a very different way than I'm seeing it."

Julia Shields, who has four sons, worries about the effect that sexual content on TikTok is having on her 12-year-old, Ally.

"I'm really shocked by the pornographic content of it," she says.

"That's the main thing that worries me having a boy because I think it paints a picture of women being objects rather than someone that you would respect."

Shamed into silence

But Dr Kasket warns that many children might not want to speak with parents about sexual experiences online.

“They’re worried, often correctly, that their parents are going to come down on them hard in shaming way, which is often a parent’s default reaction when they’re aware their kids have been doing something sexualised on the Internet," she says.

And she thinks the way social media platforms function can make certain types of video spread more easily.

“If they put in more controls that makes it less possible for sexualised content to be available on TikTok, to some extent they could be undermining their own profit," Dr Kasket says.

"It’s probably part of the reason the platform is popular among certain demographics."

Sickening 'sextortion'

And its clear that paedophiles have clocked on to the wave of sexualised content of children.

Anti-exploitation organisation NCOSE started scrutinising TikTok in recent months after receiving worrying reports from parents that their child had been asked to take their clothes off while video chatting with a stranger.

And they found examples of sextortion — sexual extortion.

"We often see patterns where someone sends one nude photo or one sexually suggestive image or video, someone will then extort them to send more, or sometimes to even meet offline," Haley McNamara says.

"A man in LA was arrested for preying on children on TikTok, sending vulgar messages and even showing up at a nine-year-old’s house.”

Haley was further alarmed to find that default TikTok settings allow strangers to directly message kids.

Take control of TikTok – change these settings now

Parents should do the following immediately...

Go private:

Shut out weirdos:

Restricted Mode ON:

A spokesperson from TikTok, which last week announced a new feature to allow parents to control what their kids view, said: "Keeping our community safe is a top priority for TikTok. Our Community Guidelines - the policies that help to keep TikTok safe - make it clear that we do not tolerate predatory or grooming behaviour towards minors. To enforce these policies, our moderators work around the clock to review and remove inappropriate content and ban accounts that violate our policies.

"We encourage our community to use our reporting tools to let us know if they are concerned that someone is using TikTok inappropriately. These reports are analysed by our expert review team who take action in line with our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service.

"Malicious actors will attempt to misuse our platform which is why we are committed to working with experts in this sector, including the Internet Watch Foundation in the UK, to help us continually strengthen our moderation policies and processes."

TikTok parental controls – the 6 settings you need to change right now