An investigation by the prestigious Wall Street Journal revealed that the Chinese short video application, Tik Tok, recommends and guides underage users to pornographic content and drug and alcohol consumption, reported the Daily Mail.
The prestigious U.S. media outlet created 31 accounts on Tik Tok with bots specifying in the profile of these users that they were underage, between 13 and 15 years old.
As the automated users watched videos on the app, Tik Tok’s algorithm began to suggest videos with explicit sexual content for adults and videos that encouraged drug and alcohol consumption.
In one specific case, an account ‘of a 13-year-old boy’ searched for the words onlyfans (an adult app), and Tik Tok recommended two users selling pornography.
From that point on, the homepage of the allegedly underage user had recommendations for videos with sexual content.
The homepage suggestions are set based on previous searches and the types of content most viewed or that the user spends the most time watching, an aspect very similar to YouTube.
The more the user dwells on sexual content, the more sexual content will be displayed, despite the user’s age being set in their profile.
TikTok said the app does not differentiate between videos marked for adults from those for children but that they were working on a new tool to filter them out.
Another underage user was shown 569 videos about drug use, including references to cocaine and methamphetamine addiction, as well as promotional videos for online sales of pharmaceuticals.
The WSJ accounts were also shown more than 100 videos promoting pornography sites and sex shops from accounts labeled as adults-only.
The accounts created also received videos promoting alcohol consumption, anorexia, etc.
The Wall Street Journal sent more than 1,000 videos to Tik Tok with inappropriate content resulting from its investigation.
255 of those videos, the Daily Mail explains, even contained sexual material between adults and minors. Tik Tok allegedly deleted those videos upon receipt.
According to the Chinese app’s terms and conditions, users must be over the age of 13 to open an account, and being under 18, they need a guardian to set up privacy settings and supervise the child’s time using the app.
“Protecting minors is vitally important, and TikTok has taken industry-first steps to promote a safe and age-appropriate experience for teens,” said a Tik Tok spokesperson.
However, the automated accounts created by the WSJ only had to provide a date of birth, and an IP address to access the app, meaning the security TikTok boasts does not appear to be working.
The investigation found that Tik Tok’s algorithm quickly defines the user and floods them with suggestions on a particular topic.
One account received 150 recommendations of Japanese cartoon videos, many of them sexually oriented.
TikTok told the Journal that the bots’ behavior ‘in no way represents the behavior and viewing experience of a real person.”
However, 40 percent of the adult-themed videos shown to children come from accounts labeled as adults-only.
Tik Tok has in the United States alone 100 million users, and the company now says, following the report, that it is working to ensure the safety of its underage users.
Tik Tok poses a national security threat
Citing national security concerns, former President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order in August 2020 to ban the app from being available for use in the United States because Tik Tok sends its users’ personal data to servers in mainland China, leaving the information available to the Chinese Communist Party which has a history of significant spying.
However, President Biden in June 2021 revoked Trump’s executive order arguing that his administration would conduct its own review of Chinese apps and Tik Tok that normally operates in the United States.