The TikTok Spiral, Part 1: Descent – Tech News Briefing

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Zoe Thomas: This is Tech News Briefing from the Wall Street Journal. I’m your host, Zoe Thomas. We’re breaking from our usual format for the next few days, with a special series on social media and the potentially devastating effects it can have. Now, questions about the impact of social media aren’t new, but 2021 marked an inflection point. Congress started asking questions.

Congress: Do you believe consumers should be able to use social media platforms without being manipulated by algorithms designed to keep them engaged on the platform?

Zoe Thomas: … and proposing new laws?

Congress: That action has to address the harms that children and teens face on social media.

Zoe Thomas: The social media platforms started making changes. One reason for all this attention is that the use of social media has exploded, and we’re learning more about the possible psychological damage viewing these seemingly endless streams of narrow content can have, especially on young people, particularly on young women.

Speaker 3: I think that TikTok can be a really bad place and it can be a place that can help people spiral.

Zoe Thomas: TikTok. The video sharing platform is popular with teens and really good at getting in user’s heads. Over the next three days on Tech News Briefing we’ll ask, what does it feel like to fall down these rabbit holes into a world that in some cases becomes filled with content about eating disorders, self harm, and even suicide? How can creators, even those with the best of intentions, make the wells of damaging content deeper, and who might you meet as you try to climb your way back out?
This is episode one, Descent. TikTok is the world’s fastest growing social media network. It was popular before, but during the pandemic millions of new users joined to watch short videos of all sorts of things. First and foremost, the latest dance trends, but then also funny pranks.

Speaker 4: Hid from my dog to see her reaction.

Zoe Thomas: … and the trendiest recipes.

Speaker 5: Tonight, I made this Cheesy Cauliflower Melt.

Speaker 6: Select 18 videos and press sync.

Zoe Thomas: [Perri Kornbluh 00:00:02:27] an aspiring nurse from Rockland County, New York joined TikTok in March 2020, when she was 19.

Speaker 7: When I first got on TikTok, it was because I was bored in quarantine. I had no idea what I was getting into. In the beginning I did see a lot of the Tiger King Dance, Carole Baskin.

Speaker 8: Carole Baskin. Killed her husband. Whacked him. Hey, convinced me that it did-

Zoe Thomas: For (Perri) TikTok was an escape. A bit of fun. Her For You page, where TikTok shows users personalized feeds of endless streams of videos, was filled with lighthearted content. But about a month into using TikTok that changed. (Perri) started seeing videos about eating disorders. Instead of scrolling past, she paused and watched.

Speaker 7: I saw a lot of videos of people saying what I eat in a day, and they were severely under eating. They were showing three pieces of this or three pieces of that.

Zoe Thomas: She skipped over more positive content and soon her feed was a flood of eating disorder videos.

Speaker 7: Focusing on people trying to show off their bodies, or people trying to show off how little they were eating, or what behaviors they were used.

Zoe Thomas: (Perri) grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community. She got married when she was 18. In the lead up to the ceremony she began dieting and continued to restrict what she ate after the wedding. In August of 2019, she left her husband, but less than a year later, she says new questions about what she ate started popping up in her head, helped along by videos that were filling up her TikTok For You page.

Speaker 7: I’d never admitted that I had that problem. As soon as I got on TikTok and I started seeing all these other people looking sicker than me or doing stuff, and I was like, “Oh, I’m not that bad. I don’t really think I have a problem. I don’t need to get help. Look at them. They’re the ones who are really sick.”

Zoe Thomas: It wasn’t just one or two videos. (Perri) would spend hours on TikTok where videos can be between 15 seconds and three minutes long. She’d sometimes watch thousands of posts in a day, many about extreme fitness and restrictive dieting.
About a thousand miles away in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 15 year old, Beth Hartman was going through something similar. Beth was a high school freshman at the time and had been active in school sports before the pandemic.

Beth: The sports I do are cross country. I do Dance Team in between, and then I run track.

Zoe Thomas: What’s a Dance Team? Is it like cheerleading?

Beth: No, it’s like dance, dance. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Dance Moms. We do what Dance Mom does, but definitely not as good as them.

Zoe Thomas: Of course, when she signed up for TikTok in March 2020, she learned some of the viral dances.

Beth: The very first one I learned was a Renegade. That’s a bunch arm movements and move your body to the music to the song.

Zoe Thomas: It quickly became more than the dance videos. Like (Perri), Beth would pause and watch videos about extreme dieting. Her For You page filled up with videos labeled, What I Eat in a Day.

Beth: The videos were only a hundred calories a day, and then are saying like, “Oh, this is way too much. Now I got to go exercise for an hour and a half to get rid of it.”

Zoe Thomas: Also, like (Perri), Beth was struggling with this herself.

Beth: I was already in my eating disorder. It made me feel really bad myself, and they made me think that maybe I should start picking up these behaviors because they have an eating disorder and they have these behaviors.

Zoe Thomas: How does this happen that your TikTok For You feed starts off with weird DIYs, beauty tips and dance videos, and ends up filled with a narrow range of content. It’s TikTok’s algorithm. Of course, it’s not the only social media company that uses one. To understand what you will engage with, apart from what you’ve already watched, there’s a tried and tested method. Comparing your habits to other users like you.

Munmun DeChoudhury: That’s an old concept and it was successful for a long time on platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon.

Zoe Thomas: Munmun DeChoudhury is an associate professor at the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. You know when you finish watching a movie and it recommends a bunch of other titles you might want to see next, or how Amazon seems to know what you want to buy before you’ve even typed it into the search bar. DeChoudhury says that’s just one way algorithm driven platforms constantly gather information.

Munmun DeChoudhury: They have created all these trajectories of people’s behavior. Sometimes it can be the person themselves, other times they have millions of other people who are … they’re finding out that, this person seems to be like you be because they live in the same neighborhood or they have the same gender identity or they have the same age group, or whatever other cue that they might be having.

Zoe Thomas: But TikTok is different.

Munmun DeChoudhury: Being suggested what to buy is probably helpful, but it becomes problematic when similar approaches are transplanted on platform like TikTok or Facebook or Instagram, because it’s not just about what content quote unquote sells, but also about how people interpret those content, and how is that content affecting others. Right?

Zoe Thomas: Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s investigative team set up more than a hundred automated TikTok accounts or bots, to try and find out how TikTok’s algorithm worked. The reporters filled out a TikTok profile for each bot with an age and a location. Some were registered as 13 year olds. Separately the Wall Street Journal team assigned the bots, a short set of interests, topics like politics or astrology, and the bots were set loose to watch videos on TikTok for several days to see how quickly TikTok could learn their interests. At first, just like Beth and (Perri), the bots were shown a range of content, but then the algorithm started zeroing in on what would keep them watching.
The team learned that unlike other platforms, TikTok’s algorithm only seemed to need one metric to figure its users out. What they stopped and watched. The bots that lingered over weight loss and exercise videos were quickly served more, until these topics made up more than half of the bots’ feed. One third of the weight loss videos were about eating disorders. WSJ reporter, Rob Barry is part of the investigative team.

Rob Barry: On another, maybe more traditional social media platform, take Facebook, you come to the app and you tell the app, here’s who I want to be friends with. Other people become friends with you, and the app obviously learns your preferences, but it’s often centered around your interactions with other people who you know. On TikTok that’s not the case at all. You get immediately dropped into the fire hose of TikToks and those TikToks can from anywhere on the platform.

Zoe Thomas: The algorithm is so powerful. TikTok users sometimes say the platform is reading their mind.

Speaker 12: Hold up. Don’t scroll. Let me ask you something first. Can someone please explain how this algorithm works?

Zoe Thomas: Okay. Has anyone else noticed that your For You page has been a little too accurate lately?

Speaker 14: TikTok knows everything about us.

Zoe Thomas: But Rob says just because the user lingered over a video, doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoy it the most.

Rob Barry: I likened it in my mind, like watching a car crash. Right? Some of this extreme content is like when you drive by an accident. You don’t really want to see the accident. You don’t want to see something terrible, but you can’t turn away.

Zoe Thomas: TikTok has said WSJ’s bot experiment doesn’t reflect real user behavior, because humans have more diverse sets of interests. But they said even one person having that experience is one too many. TikTok users are aware this is how the system works, but Beth Hartman says she prefers her TikTok feed over other social media platforms she’s on.

Beth: I feel on Instagram, for example, you can control what you see by the people you follow and stuff, compared to TikTok, in a way you don’t have a control of what you see, unless it’s your following page that you have the control. But the For You page, you have no control. In a way I like that, because I’m not very technology advanced, but I also don’t like it because then you get those really bad videos coming up.

Yoree Koh: I think there is an element of guilty pleasure.

Zoe Thomas: Yoree Koh is a reporter who covers kids and tech for the Wall Street Journal. Teens she spoke to about TikTok, like Beth, told her TikTok gave them a rush that other platforms didn’t.

Yoree Koh: One teen that I talked to said because she was a passive consumer, she didn’t feel as guilty when she would watch these videos that she knew, in the back of her mind, were self destructive. But because TikTok just kept giving her more and more and all she was doing was swiping through to the next video, she didn’t feel like she was an active participant. I think it just makes it easier to give yourself a pass.

Zoe Thomas: TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company, ByteDance says it tries to prevent users from seeing only a few types of content, something the company refers to you as filter bubbles. Just this month after the Journal presented the company with the results of its investigation, TikTok said it was testing new ways to do this. Tara Wadhwa is the Policy Director for US Trust and Safety at TikTok. She says the company tries to show users a wide range of content, but it also wants users to like what they see.

Tara Wadhwa: The types of things that you’re interested in seeing, and have shown a penchant for looking at, are things that will continue to populate your feed, but we also have ways for people to customize what they’re able to see.

Zoe Thomas: TikTok says, if users don’t like what they see, they can click a not interested button, which blocks the videos from a specific creator or ones with the same audio. But (Perri) and Beth say the button didn’t change their feed. Beth found herself idolizing the people in the harmful content she saw on TikTok.

Beth: It made me start thinking while they’re eating this many calories and they’re losing weight, maybe I should start eating this amount. Maybe I should start purging to get rid of the weight.

Zoe Thomas: After months of watching TikTok, both she and (Perri) say their eating disorders had gotten much worse. Beth started tearing up her food into tiny pieces, manipulating it to eat less. (Perri) started only eating one type of food for a few days straight, a mono diet.

Speaker 7: I had started excessively exercising. I would fast, and then I think it was after TikTok, that I started engaging in purging behaviors, but it wasn’t before TikTok. I had never done that before.

Zoe Thomas: TikTok says content that glamorizes or promotes eating disorders violates its guidelines. The company says it removed over 7 million videos in the first half of the year for violating policies on suicide, self harm, eating disorders and other dangerous acts. But there are billions of videos on TikTok, and plenty of users say they see the content before it gets taken down. In fact, it’s often users who flag these videos. But soon it wasn’t just videos about eating disorders. TikTok started showing (Perri) a lot of content about self harm. (Perri) says there were videos about hitting yourself, how to hide the bruises, about cutting.

Speaker 7: There are people who show recent cuts, fresh cuts, and that can be extremely triggering

Zoe Thomas: Even about suicide. They were endless. Both (Perri) and Beth say they struggled with self-harm before joining TikTok, but seeing a deluge of videos on this topic made them want to do it again.

Speaker 7: I believe in my mind, and maybe other people’s, when I think of self-harm I still get that rush of … I don’t know if it’s a dopamine or if it’s a rush of calm that comes over me and I associate it with a good feeling. I try not to obviously view it in that way, but when I come across a video of someone glamorizing it, turning it into a joke, showing their cuts, it’s really triggering. I get at that feeling and I’m like, “Oh, I want more of that feeling.” It can easily lead to a relapse.

Zoe Thomas: (Perri) says she reached her breaking point, abusing laxatives and weighing herself repeatedly throughout the day. She was severely dehydrated, dizzy and weak and having heart palpitations.

Speaker 7: I remember one morning I got up and I hadn’t reached my goal weight that I set for myself. I was a pound more than that or something, and it completely led me over the edge. I started feeling like, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to end it.” That’s when I think I reached out to a friend and ended up hospitalizing an eating disorder inpatient facility.

Zoe Thomas: In Beth’s case, it was her parents who noticed her dramatic weight loss. She dropped 20 pounds in just two months. She was too weak to keep playing sports. They enrolled her in a treatment center in July 20. For six months both young women were in treatment. Their phones were taken away, and so at least for that time, they couldn’t log on to TikTok.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, about 9% of the U.S. population nearly or 29 million people will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, but experts at eating disorder treatment facilities say there’s been an uptake in cases since the start of the pandemic. Here’s WSJ’s Yoree Koh again.

Yoree Koh: At a lot of places, the number of admissions among minors for eating disorders doubled. There are wait lists at many places, that they just said is totally unprecedented. At a lot of those places, a number of the teens have said that social media has played a role. So much so that a lot of these places offer a social media detox. A dietician I spoke to at one treatment center basically has a session on how to retrain your TikTok algorithm once they get out of residential treatment, because she has seen patients leave treatment and then get sucked back into the rabbit hole, only to return to the center for more treatment.

Zoe Thomas: On our next episode, we’ll find out what happens when Beth and (Perri) get out of treatment and back onto TikTok.
If you or someone you know, is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. Trained specialists are available 24/7. For help with eating disorders call the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders free helpline at 1888-375-7767.
This episode of Tech News Briefing was written and reported by myself, producer Julie Chang and WSJ tech reporter Yoree Koh. We had production and data support from WSJ reporter, Rob Barry and producers, Kaitlyn Nicholas and Amanda Llewellyn. Sarah Gibb Alaska is our sound designer. The show was edited by Deputy Editor of investigations, Christopher Stewart, Supervising Producer, Chris Tinsley, and Executive Producer Kateri Jochum.
I’m Zoe Thomas for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks for listening.

Christin Hakim

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