When Jula Anderson joined TikTok at age 16, her first video featured her family’s home renovations. It got five likes. After seeing others post risqué videos and get more likes, she tried it, too.
“I wanted to get famous on TikTok, and I learned that if you post stuff showing your body, people will start liking it,” Jula, now an 18-year-old high-school senior near Sacramento, Calif., said.
Sudden TikTok fame is catching teens off guard, leaving many girls unprepared for the attention they thought they wanted, according to parents, therapists and teens. In some cases, predators target girls who make sexually suggestive videos; less-dangerous interactions can also harm girls’ self-esteem and leave them feeling exploited, they say.
Mental-health professionals around the country are growing increasingly concerned about the effects on teen girls of posting sexualized TikTok videos. Therapists say teens who lack a group of close friends, and teens with underlying mental health issues—especially girls who struggle with disordered eating and body-image issues—are at particular risk.
“For a young girl who’s developing her identity, to be swept up into a sexual world like that is hugely destructive,” said Paul Sunseri, a psychologist and director of the New Horizons Child and Family Institute in El Dorado Hills, Calif., where Jula began receiving treatment last year for anxiety and depression. “When teen girls are rewarded for their sexuality, they come to believe that their value is in how they look,” he said.
He said approximately a quarter of the female patients at his clinic have produced sexualized content on TikTok.
Carter Barnhart, co-founder of Charlie Health, a virtual mental-health care provider, said a growing number of teens she treats report their self-esteem is dependent on the quantity of likes they get on TikTok. “Many of them have figured out that the formula for that is producing more sexual content,” she said.
Videos just ‘for you’
Teens’ dependence on TikTok for social validation has risen as the app has become their favored platform. TikTok overtook Instagram in popularity among teens last year—and became the most visited site on the internet.
TikTok’s algorithm regularly propels virtual nobodies onto millions of viewers’ For You pages. TikTok weighs whether viewers show strong interest in a particular type of content, measured by whether they finish watching videos, the company says. Its recommendation engine then chooses videos to send to those viewers, regardless of the creator’s follower count or past video virality.
Platforms like Instagram, YouTube and
work differently, serving content to users based on search terms and friend connections, so developing a sizable following—and going viral—on those sites can take longer.
“We think carefully about the well-being of teens as we design our safety and privacy settings and restrict features on TikTok by age,” a TikTok spokeswoman said in a statement. “We’ve also worked with youth safety experts to develop resources aimed at supporting digital safety and literacy conversations among parents and teens.”
A company fact sheet says “content that is overtly sexually suggestive may not be eligible for recommendation.” The spokeswoman said content from users who state they are under 16 isn’t eligible for promotion via the recommendation engine, nor would it appear in search results.
Teens are known to lie about their age when creating social-media accounts. Users must be 13 to create a TikTok account, and it is company policy to suspend the accounts of kids the safety team believes to be underage.
At Newport Academy’s outpatient treatment program in Atlanta, 60% of the girls treated since the program started last summer have posted sexually inappropriate videos on TikTok, said Crystal Burwell, the program’s director of outpatient services.
One 16-year-old girl Dr. Burwell is treating made progressively more suggestive videos. “The more likes she had, the more revealing her outfits became,” she said.
The girl ended up chatting with a man who urged her to take their conversation off TikTok and into a messaging app. The girl sent the man partially nude photos of herself and the two were making plans to meet in person when her parents discovered the texts, according to Dr. Burwell.
“When you combine human behavior and algorithms, things get messy,” Dr. Burwell said. “We’re trying to clean it up, one client at a time.”
A few months after she joined the app in the summer of 2019, Jula Anderson’s wish for TikTok fame came true. A video of her wearing a tightfitting tank top and lip-syncing the pop song “Sunday Best” blew up. For reasons Jula and her mother, Shauna Anderson, still don’t understand, TikTok’s algorithm pushed the video to viewers’ For You pages. More than a million people viewed the video and nearly 500,000 people liked it, they both said.
Jula’s following went from a few hundred to more than 200,000. There was nothing overtly sexual about the video, she and her mother said, but her video’s comments were inundated with boys and men saying how hot she looked.
Buoyed by the success, Jula made her videos more risqué, including by lip-syncing lyrics about sex and getting more revealing in her wardrobe choices. “I’d wear clothes that I wouldn’t wear to school but that I felt good in,” she said. “I didn’t view them as that sexual, but other people did.”
By then, she was constantly checking her likes. “It was my whole world,” she said.
Her parents weren’t aware of how suggestive the videos had gotten until Jula’s grandparents, tipped off by cousins, alerted them.
“To us, she’s this sweet girl, so it’s almost like this split personality between who she really is and how she portrayed herself on TikTok,” Ms. Anderson said. “When we confronted her about it, she was like, ‘Mom, that’s what everyone is doing.’”
Ms. Anderson said that her daughter didn’t have a close group of friends, and she thinks the isolation of the pandemic intensified her need to find connection. “She thought this was a way to be liked and have friends,” Ms. Anderson said. “I struggled with what to do, because the thing I love about TikTok is that kids can be really creative, and we encouraged that as a family.”
Worried about dangers that might arise from publicly viewable videos, Jula’s parents asked her to delete the suggestive ones. They also discussed the issue in family and individual therapy sessions.
Jula, who said she had a history of anxiety before joining TikTok, said the widespread attention and creepy comments from men had become difficult to handle. Comments critical of her appearance also stung.
Following the intervention, she chose to step away from TikTok for a few months. She said it was hard. In the middle of last year, she returned to the app but created a new account that she set to private. She has just a few followers—people she knows in real life. She said she rarely posts now.
Jula said she ultimately decided that the suggestive videos weren’t how she wanted to portray herself to the world, or to younger girls who might see them. She has four younger sisters and said she doesn’t want them to seek or receive attention the way she did.
“I think I tried growing up a lot faster than I should have,” Jula said.
What families can do
Parents can take steps to protect their teens on TikTok and talk about the videos they are creating.
Use parental controls. TikTok allows parents to link their own accounts to their teens’, to enable content and privacy settings, such as restricting content types and setting time limits. Through Family Pairing, parents can also turn off messaging, or restrict who can send direct messages to their teen. (Messaging is automatically disabled for teens under 16.) This guide explains how to set up Family Pairing.
Monitor your teen’s feed. Therapists and child-safety experts recommend asking to watch TikToks together. A quick look at what shows up in their feed will give you an idea of the kind of content they’re seeing. And checking to see what kind of videos they’re creating is a must, though teens can easily create secret accounts.
Don’t freak out. If you find your teen has been creating videos you consider inappropriate, it’s best not to overreact, therapists say. Instead, ask why they chose to create those types of videos and whether that’s the version of themselves they want to share with the world. You can help them think critically by asking them to list the things they’d want people to know about them other than how they look.
Take a break. In cases where teens have suffered severe harm as a result of being on TikTok, some therapists suggest removing TikTok altogether. Sometimes a short break is enough. If teens want to return to TikTok after having a bad experience, it’s best to do so under parental supervision and with clear boundaries in place, therapists say.
—For more Family & Tech columns, advice and answers to your most pressing family-related technology questions, sign up for my weekly newsletter.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8