Our daughters are under attack. While they are being erased in sports, big tech algorithms are encouraging them to bare-all online with little concern for their well-being. In 2021, leaked internal Facebook documents demonstrated they knew the potential toxicity of Instagram for adolescent girl well-being and took little action to improve their platform. TikTok is now taking its toll.
Last week the Wall Street Journal highlighted concerns by mental health professionals around teen girls feeling pressured to post sexualized content on TikTok, with many citing increased clinical concerns and treatment centered around this trend. TikTok, a video sharing application, is now the most popular social media site for teenagers. The current algorithm is designed to promote content to a customized ‘For You’ page which is populated by videos curated via viewer interest measured by duration of video consumption. The recommendation engine then finds videos that match those interests regardless of the poster’s follower count.
In short, the time a user lingers on a video solely determines what will be promoted to them. It is because of this formula that young girls with few followers can be propelled to fame with a single video. For many, there is a desire to be featured on the ‘For You’ page and if or when that occurs, a pressure to produce. Both can result in increasingly sexualized content in the hopes of ‘making it’ or ‘keeping it.’ While the app is not demanding sexualized content, its algorithm can coerce girls in that direction.
So as many bluster about Facebook mis- and disinformation and while Twitter censors accounts who fail to toe party-lines, a Chinese-created app is contributing to the objectification of our girls. There is more to this than sex and morality. Sexual objectification, the treating of a person as if their meaning or worth is only related to sex, is directly and indirectly linked to various mental health conditions in girls. The process of self-objectification, the treating of self as objects to be valued based on appearance, can produce shame. Shame can lead to withdrawal and a desire to shrink or turn inward. There is also empirical evidence that feelings of shame factor more heavily than guilt in the dynamics leading up to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The precipitous rise in suicide attempts by teenage girls during the pandemic (50.6%) occurred alongside an explosion in TikTok platform usage.
What’s more, self-objectification can lead to constant appearance monitoring which consumes cognitive resources and can impair cognitive functioning. For some, it can hijack dreams and aspirations. One study found that adolescent girls with high levels of internalized sexualization, or self-objectification, reported poorer academic orientation as evidenced by lower grades and test scores with prioritized appearance monitoring over studying.
The TikTok they don’t want us to hear is the ticking of a clock counting down on our daughters’ futures. The girls are not alright, and these companies are okay with their distress as long as it lines their pockets. Adolescence was challenging enough when the only girls you had to compare yourself were those in your hometown or the cover of magazines. If comparison is the thief of joy, we are enabling the pillaging of our daughters’ hearts and souls.