By age 16, Turner had amassed more than 600,000 followers on the social media platform TikTok. And that’s just in the last two years. His sudden popularity on the app has led to lucrative brand deals and screen acting opportunities. By all accounts, Turner is living the dream.
Turner is part of a growing wave of influential teens eschewing traditional career paths in favour of a chance at celebrity. in a recent survey54% of Gen Z said they would like to become an influencer and 86% expressed an interest in posting content on social media for money.
But lawmakers across the country are concerned that popular social media apps may be creating a mental health crisis for America’s youth. In his State of the Union, President Biden referred to big tech companies as “national experiments” on children. In March, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general about the impact of TikTok on children and adolescents as part of a consumer protection initiative. It is the latest expansion of efforts to enact stronger protections for children online.
“Given that children and adolescents are already dealing with issues of anxiety, peer pressure and depression, we cannot allow social media to further harm their physical health and mental well-being,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, an of the attorney generals who are leading the investigation. research
In September 2021, leaked documents From Facebook revealed data on the harmful effects of the company’s Instagram application on , with the teenage girls bearing the brunt. (The parent company of Facebook, which has since been renamed Meta, saying Instagram “helps a lot of teens who are struggling with some of the toughest issues they experience.”) One of the results of the was the introduction of the Children’s Online Safety Act, an invoice that would require companies to create features that protect children from the worst of social media.
Layla ann VanHooser knows firsthand the darker side of social media. The 13-year-old gained roughly 100,000 followers on the Musical.ly app, which predates TikTok. At first, the app was a lot of fun. But once TikTok bought Musical.ly, VanHooser’s fan base changed and he struggled to find a new audience that would connect with his content.
Most of his fans left positive comments. “I’d hear, oh my God, this girl is so funny,” she recalled. But many of her new followers had less than nice things to say, calling her “embarrassing” or insulting her looks. At the time, she was only 11 years old and her comments hurt her. “My parents told me I wasn’t allowed to see the comments,” she said. (Unlike TikTok, Musical.ly did not restrict content for users under the age of 13.)
VanHooser has used humour to make fun of bullies, a technique that has resonated with his fans. “One time, I didn’t get any eyebrows,” VanHooser said. So he made a TikTok with eyebrows drawn with Sharpie pasted on his face. “It was like, now my eyebrows are here,” he joked. “It was really fun. Also, I have eyebrows! Those comments made no sense.”
Now that VanHooser is 13, the minimum age to post videos on TikTok, he is using his comedy and dance to get his anti-bullying message across. “TikTok is for everyone,” she smiled at her. “That’s the message I have for other girls.”
Even with the nasty comments, when asked if she’d like to be famous, VanHooser doesn’t miss a beat.
“I want to be famous. I’d be so excited if I got the blue tick,” she said, referring to the little checkmark the app gives its top users.
Reducing the use of social networks among adolescents could be a herculean task. Approximately 37.3 million American teens use TikTok. The average TikTok user spends more than 24 hours viewing the content in the app every month.
“I can’t sit through a movie for the life of me,” VanHooser said. But he said he can easily spend four hours on the app in a single session. “I just sit there and scroll.” Even with the occasional stalker, the app, he told her, just can’t be beaten.
A setback and a new beginning
After two years of building her fan base, Jiggy’s account was banned, seemingly overnight. A self-styled “hacker” attacked him with a bot attack, continually flagging Jiggy’s account for violations until eventually TikTok simply shut down the account. The hacker then opened a new account.
“He stole my photos, my videos,” Jiggy said. “And then he started accepting money for promotions.”
Jiggy’s inbox was soon flooded with angry emails from potential customers, confused that they hadn’t seen the promised promotion in Jiggy’s account. The hacker, he said, had stolen the money from him. “I feel like it damaged my reputation.”
But Jiggy is still optimistic. He notified TikTok about the incident and is trying to get the account back from him. Meanwhile, he has started a new account. So far, it only has 50,000 followers, but it is rapidly accelerating. Jiggy says that it has been an important lesson.
“In many ways, starting over has been liberating. I can post whatever I want. I don’t just need to keep my old fans happy.”
His new fans identify with the new Jiggy, who is older and wiser than when he started using TikTok two years ago.
“It’s been difficult, but it’s also an opportunity,” he said. He is still confident that he will make it.