#parent | #kids | The problem with normalizing TikTok – opinion

 Over the last year, social media platform TikTok has skyrocketed in popularity – in particular with young teens. With that, as well as the unprecedented social media usage of children younger than ever before, has come a plethora of unintended consequences. While social media have plenty of good features, and allow for connection without borders, apps like TikTok are giving children the tools to be sexually exploited without them even realizing, and it’s shaping Gen Z in an alarming way we need to address.In the last two weeks, Netflix made international headlines with the addition of a French film called Cuties that features the story of an 11-year-old dance troupe whose members learn and perform hypersexualized dances.

Some have called it a “coming of age” film, but in reality it’s soft-core child porn. The movie and Netflix received sharp criticism for the exploitation of child actresses (some aged 12 and 14) and for inappropriate content that includes partial nudity of a minor and children twerking for grown men to get them into a dance competition. While the film is a story of 11-year-olds, even Netflix rated it 18+.

Why on earth is Netflix featuring films for 18+ that focus exclusively on the sexualization of 11-year-old girls? We need to stop normalizing this behavior.

Just a cursory scroll through TikTok will show the alarming trends that are showing no sign of stopping. Challenge after challenge – of late, the “WAP” challenge, features young girls dancing erotically, humping the floor, spreading their legs and twerking, among other sexualized dance moves. Videos of underage girls talking about their sexual experiences, dressing (and undressing) erotically to get “likes.” The app is literally a pedophile’s dream, and these young girls have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. Add on the factor of seeking – and getting – approval, and you have a toxic combination. Not only is this dangerous for the young girls, but it also sends a message to boys and men that girls aged 12, 14, 16 are women, and that this type of sexualization is normal. It’s not. 

This year, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation listed TikTok on its 2020 “Dirty Dozen” list of companies facilitating sexual exploitation. Indeed, numerous reports indicate TikTok has struggled with problems of strangers asking underage girls for nude photos, and upon receipt, demanding more photos in what’s been called “sextortion.” While TikTok has a parent control feature, the larger problem is not necessarily the cases in which children are being extorted, but in a culture that teaches 11-year-old girls that humping the floor and gyrating for the camera in their underwear in a dance initially performed by a grown woman is somehow sexy.

As the situation continues to escalate, and young girls sexualizing themselves becomes even more easy and normalized, at what point do we take action? The public is shocked by the blatant and wildly inappropriate content in the new Netflix film, but how can we be surprised when this is literally what 13-year-olds are learning and doing on TikTok on a daily basis?

We are appalled, rightly, at the horrific rapes of underage girls that have occurred in Israel in recent years, yet no one is talking about the increasing acceptance of inappropriate objectification of underage girls on social media, and how it shapes the way young boys and men behave. Social media usage and the ease of access to adult content have profoundly affected Gen Z, and not for the better. 

Research shows that social media use deeply impacts the psychology of young girls, with rising incidence of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide in correlation to heavy social media use. One study also showed that the culture on social media also disproportionately affects the way they perceive themselves and their general well-being (as opposed to young boys). Even more alarming, research has shown for years a rapid increase in how much teens and children are using social media on a day-to-day basis – more than ever before. 

Teenage girls desperately seek acceptance and approval; they long to be seen as desirable. In a 2017 study, researchers found a direct correlation between self-comparison with other girls on Instagram and a negative self-image. With underdeveloped brains and the judgment of a teenager, young girls are the perfect target for dangerous exploitation on social media.

Across cultures, across societies, we must stop the trend that is only intensifying with time – and ease of access to digital platforms.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC and a research fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute.

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