GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Before the internet, bullying still existed in school at all levels but children were often able to escape it at home.
Social media started to change that and now TikTok has exacerbated those problems with its short videos, trending hashtags and viral challenges.
Keaton Telgenhoff, a junior in high school in Ottawa County, doesn’t know much about TikTok as he has never been on social media and doesn’t plan to be. He was diagnosed with high-functioning autism in the fifth grade and his mom decided with that and his anxiety, it wouldn’t be healthy for him to be on those apps.
He still understands good etiquette for how to handle social media and said you should “think twice before you speak and think twice before you post.”
Despite not clicking on any videos or reading any comments, he’s had to deal with the consequences of a recent TikTok viral challenge involving school bathrooms, which encouraged students to steal the hand soap dispensers.
“It’s kind of infuriating when you need to wash your hands and then you have to go to the other bathroom,” he said.
Elaina Organek is graduating this year from high school in Kent County, where she saw students take part in the same “bathroom soap challenge” and then get suspended as a result. She doesn’t think the punishment is enough of a deterrent.
“You can post a TikTok and get a bunch of likes … and people laugh and get a hundred thousand views… that’s enough motivation to not care … because a lot of people are obsessed with that kind of stuff,” she said.
She’s also seen how the app can open the door to body shaming, directly and indirectly. Girls and young women will often wear revealing clothing and learn popular dances while using heavy filters to look a certain way, which experts have said can lead to body dysmorphia or eating disorders.
Even users who gain traction with body-positive posts often deal with backlash.
“When I see somebody who might have different abilities than me or like might look different than me or the average person as TikTok displays, it’s the comments. And what people say is just cruel, because you have no idea who’s watching that video,” Organek said.
Although there are plenty of positive, encouraging videos on TikTok or videos meant to simply have fun, the algorithms can push content from influencers.
Christy Buck, the executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, said one danger is videos that encourage self-diagnoses.
“The only person who can make a good diagnoses is a doctor,” Buck said. “You’re bombarded with false mental health information every day.”
A recent advertisement that often pops up on the app encourages users to consider whether they have ADHD. It gives information on how to easily get that diagnosis with a third-party app and potentially gain access to medication for it.
Some user-generated videos give information on various conditions and suggest that if anyone else has the same symptoms as the user, they must also have that condition.
Organek often uses a feature in the app to avoid videos she doesn’t think are beneficial or helpful: The green circle with the text message icon in it on the bottom right corner of each video on TikTok gives the option to report the video or click “not interested,” which will make it disappear. That should discourage similar videos from popping into a user’s feed.
Buck said the signs that social media is becoming too much for a child might be sadness, “isolating themselves, more anger, more frustration, spending more time on that social media app or device, possibly not wanting to go to school, complaining about stomach aches.”
She also pointed to recent research regarding what age groups should have access to social media.
“It really is not recommended that children 10 to 14 years old even have any type of device where they can have access to these different apps,” Buck said.
For parents who allow their children to be on social apps, Buck said it’s important to become educated on what those apps involve and have a lot of conversations with their children about boundaries and what they are doing on the apps.
“It’s highly recommended to not have devices in kids’ bedrooms, so make it so everybody … puts their phone in a certain spot at this time of night, including the parents. Make it a family ritual every evening,” Buck said.
Organek believes that waiting to get on social media until 14 years old can be beneficial. She said it took her a long time to become comfortable with herself and not fall prey to the comparison game.
“I think if I had been in that situation when I was a bit younger, maybe in middle school, I honestly wouldn’t know how to deal with it … because middle school years are the years where you really are growing and learning about yourself,” she said.
Organek added that most of the people who leave critical comments on videos online have their own insecurities.
“(My mom) taught me to never say those things back because you have no idea how it’s going to affect somebody, how it’s going to hurt someone,” she said.