A Taxonomy of TikTok Panics
BRANDY ZADROZNY This is On the Media, I'm Brandy Zadrozny filling in this week for Brooke Gladstone. Turn on the evening news and you're likely to be confronted with a deluge of reports of young people having their minds hijacked by TikTok.
NEWS REPORT There's a new TikTok phenomena called the Pee Your Pants Challenge.
NEWS REPORT The milk crate challenge is behind these recorded climbs of precariously placed pyramids.
NEWS REPORT The number of hits on TikTok in the billions...
NEWS REPORT Massive.
NEWS REPORT In the billions. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY There are so many breathless reports of TikTok challenges we could spend a lifetime trying to catalog all of them.
BRANDY ZADROZNY They run from very dumb to very serious. From real to overblown to completely made up. On the Media, correspondent Micah Loewinger reviewed this genre of coverage and he started to notice some patterns. Hey, Micah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Hey, Brandy.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So what do you got for us?
MICAH LOEWINGER Okay, so I've been putting together what I'm calling a taxonomy of TikTok panics. I'm going to take you through a bunch of examples of reporting, some based on true things. Others are made up or overblown. And I've gotten a lot of help from reporters and researchers who cover TikTok much more closely than I do. So first, I want to tell you about my conversation with Taylor Lorenz, who, as you know, is a reporter for The Washington Post.
TAYLOR LORENZ For years I've reported on the false nature of a lot of these trends and how they emerge with new technologies.
NEWS REPORT Videos of teenagers snorting condoms and then pulling them out through their mouths. Yes, that's right. This is a thing. [END CLIP]
TAYLOR LORENZ Back in 2017, I wrote about how teens are actually not snorting condoms or eating Tide pods or whatever people were saying that YouTube was making kids do.
MICAH LOEWINGER Let's pause on the Tide Pods example for a second, which I think we can learn a lot from.
BRANDY ZADROZNY It was everywhere. I mean, there were like school letters sent home – to my home. Like it was a thing.
NEWS REPORT They're popping detergent pods into their mouths and then posting the videos online. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Much of the early hubbub was based on Internet jokes and bizarre tweets, though there were a small number of YouTube videos that got a lot of attention.
TAYLOR LORENZ The local news coverage actually brings them into the consciousness. You saw people eating Tide pods, ironically, because of the panic about it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Even accounting for that feedback loop, the Tide Pod story was totally overblown. Calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers concerning laundry detergent cases were trending down in 2017 when the story started, and as the coverage spilled over into 2018, the number dropped to the lowest record since the Tide Pods were released in 2012. And the vast majority of these poison calls were related to children under five, not teenagers.
BRANDY ZADROZNY A reminder that the amount of coverage doesn't always correlate with the size of the actual problem.
MICAH LOEWINGER So that's what we saw in the YouTube era of moral panics, which sets us up for what we're seeing with TikTok now.
TAYLOR LORENZ So you started to see pretty much the same thing that happened to YouTube, happened to Tik Tok, where it's like, look at what? TikTok is making your children do.
MICAH LOEWINGER Which brings us to the first in my taxonomy of TikTok panics what I'm calling the 'coordinated panic.' It all started with an infamous trend called devious licks.
NEWS REPORT A whole new destructive TikTok craze as teens stealing and damaging property at schools.
NEWS REPORT It's called devious licks. And students have been recording themselves vandalizing and stealing school property. The result is thousands of dollars in damage to schools across the Bay Area and the country, all documented for likes on TikTok. [END CLIP]
TAYLOR LORENZ It's true that kids were vandalizing their schools, as kids have always done, but a lot of it was attributed to Tik Tok when it really shouldn't have been.
MICAH LOEWINGER The devious looks trend wasn't as well known until it was deliberately pushed to local outlets across the country by Facebook's parent company Meta, which Taylor Lorenz revealed in a bombshell scoop earlier this year.
TAYLOR LORENZ What myself and my colleague Drew Harwell revealed was that Meta had actually hired Targeted Victory, a well-known Republican consulting firm, to help plant negative stories about TikTok across the country in local news markets.
MICAH LOEWINGER Basically, Meta was tired of being the subject of constant public scrutiny and wanted to convince parents and public officials across the country that TikTok was the real menace. But here's a sort of funny twist. Rumors about devious licks had actually started on Facebook, not TikTok. Of course, the coordinated campaign to get local media to cover this didn't mention that.
TAYLOR LORENZ A bunch of state attorney generals have announced an investigation into TikTok and its harm in children.
NEWS REPORT California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced an investigation to find out if TikTok uses special techniques to lure young users causing harm to them. [END CLIP]
TAYLOR LORENZ And so Targeted Victory and Meta were very interested in pushing these negative local news stories in those specific markets in hopes of pressuring state attorney generals to take action against TikTok.
MICAH LOEWINGER Targeted victory and Mata also pressured local outlets to cover the so-called Slap a teacher challenge.
NEWS REPORT Educators, beware. That's the warning from the California Teachers Association, letting them know about a potential TikTok trend.
NEWS REPORT So there is a list already written out. It goes month by month telling kids what to do and film it, then put it on Tik Tok.
NEWS REPORT The challenge for the month of October. Slap a teacher. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Slap a teacher hadn't started yet, but the idea was that there was a nationwide plan among teenagers to slap their teachers starting at the beginning of the month. And and this fake list of so-called future challenges had once again originated on Facebook, where it circulated in teacher and police groups. But you wouldn't know that from the coverage.
TAYLOR LORENZ There's not even a single example in these stories of a slap a teacher video. If a reporter just says it trended, where's the evidence? How much did it trend? Where did it trend? What made it trend?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah, it feels like the words trend and viral can be a bit of a cheat code for journalists because they don't require much proof. And it really does help punch up a story to feel more urgent.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yes, exactly. I think that's a really important point. And it's one that I heard from other reporters on this beat, like Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter.
RYAN BRODERICK I think the scale of TikTok makes it very hard to judge whether something is important on the app. The views are so high on the content that people assume that it must matter. You know, a trend of like for people doing something can feel like this massive movement when in fact it doesn't matter at all.
MICAH LOEWINGER Okay. So I want to move on from the coordinated panic stories to what I'm calling the 'rumor mill panic.' Brandy, did you hear about last year's National Rape Day?
BRANDY ZADROZNY I can't believe I've missed some of these, but no, I missed that one as well.
TAYLOR LORENZ This one is triggering for me. It really is. Part of what kind of pushed me into doing TikTok misinformation research in the first place.
MICAH LOEWINGER I called up Abbie Richards, who has written a lot about how conspiracy theories spread on the platform.
ABBIE RICHARDS It's unclear exactly where this started, this idea that a big group of men were going to just go out and rape women, which is a gross misunderstanding of how sexual violence is perpetrated, because most sexual assault is committed by somebody that the victim knows and often trusts.
MICAH LOEWINGER Like Slap-a-Teacher Day, it was unclear in the moment what the source of the concern was, but there was a rumor and that is what set the app on fire.
ABBIE RICHARDS We really awareness-videoed it into existence. All of the videos surrounding it were about like, Oh, I don't know if this is true, but if it is. Be careful.
TIKTOKER I don't know how many guys are going to be participating in this. Be extra careful to get your mace. Get your Tasers. Don't go anywhere.
TIKTOKER I don't know whether it's a sick twisted joke or if it's a call to action. So I want to remind everybody to be prepared to save your own life. [END CLIP]
ABBIE RICHARDS And then the news coverage about it was not critical at all.
NEWS REPORT It's hard to believe this is actually a thing. And I'm reporting on this to tell you about it this morning. A group of men on the popular social media app called Tik Tok have declared April 24th as National Rape Day. That's right. You heard me. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But when April 24th rolled around. Nothing happened. And a very similar phenomenon occurred later in 2021 with National School Shooting Day on December 17th.
ABBIE RICHARDS It seems to have started because there was some reported video to a school administrator and then once the school posted about it on Facebook and the local law enforcement, you posted about it on Facebook, it became this game of telephone of 'just be careful. You should know'.
NEWS REPORT The TikTok challenge encourages students to make threats against their school. And it's supposed to happen today. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Ultimately, some reports noted that the Department of Homeland Security and local police believed these threats were totally unfounded. But by the time December 17th rolled around, the panic had spread too far.
NEWS REPORT Schools are canceled in California, Texas, Missouri and Minnesota.
NEWS REPORT I've seen a dozen kids come into the front office here at this particular school location today feared for their lives.
STUDENT It's a little scary. I don't really want to go to school tomorrow. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY And it seems like one of the themes here is that news reports claiming that teens are going to do something on a certain day nationwide probably isn't going to come to fruition.
MICAH LOEWINGER And another theme in the coverage that I've noticed is reliance on police sources. Which brings us to the third in my taxonomy of TikTok panics what I'm calling: the local crime panic.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I call it cop-aganda.
NEWS REPORT A new tick tock challenge has Massillon residents understandably upset.
NEWS REPORT Inspired by old Kool Aid commercials being reported across the country, Massillon police posted this warning on Facebook about young people busting through fences, causing thousands of dollars in damages. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Brandy, there were reports like this in New York, Idaho and Ohio. Palmer Hassch, a reporter for Insider, reached out to Tik Tok and the company told her there was no evidence that videos of the so-called Kool-Aid Man Challenge ever existed on the app. My best guess is that local police who, by the way, are not experts in youth culture, were basing this idea off of videos of drunken adult men busting through drywall, which have been circulating online for years.
MAN Oh, no.
OTHER MAN Oh, no.
[SOUND OF DRYWALL BEING SMASHED THROUGH]
MAN Oh yeah. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And by the way, I found tons of news reports about the same form of vandalism that pre-date Tik Tok by years. Here's one from 2011.
NEWS REPORT James Tidwell has had it with the female fence crashers. With the help of police, he installed some hidden cameras. And look at those cameras caught at midnight Sunday. It shows two teens body slamming the vinyl fence, taking several sections down.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh, my God.
NEWS REPORT This hidden camera actually caught another teen urinating in the neighbor's driveway, then struggling to get her pants back on before making a mad dash for the fence.
And then now she's peeing – how is this the news? I'm sorry, it's too much.
MICAH LOEWINGER I think it's fair to say Tik Tok did not create this problem.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Another thing that I'm picking up on from these examples is that Tik Tok, because it's the hot platform, it sort of allows journalists to put a fresh coat of paint on an old trend, intentionally or not.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yes, exactly. Which brings me to the last category in my taxonomy, what I'm calling the 'PSA panic.' It follows a common format. First, there's a frightening anecdote which is linked to what's described as an Internet trend, followed by an expert saying, this is dangerous, don't let your kids do this. And a conclusion that you should have a conversation with your kids about what they're doing and seeing online, like the so-called dry scooping challenge, meaning eating pre-workout supplements without dissolving them in water.
NEWS REPORT A Tennessee woman experiences the dangerous consequences of this whole new social media Tik Tok challenge.
EATER-OF-DRY-PREWORKOUT All right, guys. So I had a heart attack, as most of you guys know, from taking this RetCon One: Total war. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This was a fad prior to Tik Tok. I've been able to find YouTube videos and posts on fitness websites dating back to 2019, but none of the recent reports that I've seen really spell that out or tell us how common this is. Much like my last example, what's known as the Blackout Challenge.
NEWS REPORT A 12 year old boy is on life support after his parents say he may have tried a social media challenge.
NEWS REPORT There's a new TikTok challenge, putting teenagers at risk. So we want to talk about it. It's called the blackout challenge.
NEWS REPORT The blackout challenge. This is where you hold your breath until you pass out. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I saved this example for last because it's the most disturbing and sensitive. And I want to be clear that even just one child committing this type of self-harm is too many. But much of the recent TV coverage I've seen on this tends to focus on like a couple anecdotes without really addressing the context, which is that the choking game, as it's sometimes called, has been around since as early as the 1930s. The CDC found that about 82 kids have died from this between 1995 and 2007. And it's definitely possible social media has supercharged those numbers since. But without good investigative journalism or more academic research, we can only speculate. Which is one of my main points in this taxonomy. As journalists, we need to be clear about the scale of a given harm or threat. And if we don't know, we need to make that clear too. But more often than not, these reports just leave so much open to the imagination.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I agree, Micah, but we shouldn't go easy on TikTok either. Conspiracy theories, extremist content and misinformation. They travel extraordinarily fast on that app, and TikTok hasn't made it clear that they have a great handle on tamping it down.
RYAN BRODERICK It's the most aggressive algorithm I've ever seen when it comes to recommendations.
MICAH LOEWINGER Ryan Broderick..
NEWS REPORT It's the most re-mixable platform have ever seen. It's the fastest, most mobile platform I've ever seen. And so the damage that you can do with it is on a different level.
MICAH LOEWINGER And I imagine Tik Tok and academics are like studying these phenomena and perhaps as the national attorneys general investigation into the platform ramps up, there will be, you know, lots more discussion about the particular harms of TikTok. But as a news consumer, I think it's really important that we all kind of take a deep breath and recognize that we've been here before.
AMY ORBEN It's this cycle that seems to repeat all over again, from the printing press to the radio to video games to smartphones and social media.
MICAH LOEWINGER Dr. Amy Orben leads the Digital Mental Health Program at the University of Cambridge. She's studied how throughout history, adults have routinely blamed new tech for undesirable behavior in kids.
TAYLOR LORENZ I actually came across one paper by a researcher called Mary Preston, who in the 1940s published a piece around children's reactions to the radio, which was just kind of really increasing in popularity in American society. And she noted that over half of the children she studied were becoming addicted to the radio and that was having an impact on their body and their health and their are using this addiction as an alcoholic does drink.
MICAH LOEWINGER WNYC is archivist Andy Lanset. It was kind enough to dust off this incredible broadcast from 1947.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh, this is so cool.
REPORTER Are you telling me, Mrs Babillion children from the ages of 8 to 12 stay up to listen to the radio after 9:30, especially during the school week?
EXPERT Shocking as this may seem, Mrs. Cassidy, the unfortunate fact is that there are many parents who, to the detriment of the health and well-being of their children, do permit them to do just that. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER After the moral panic around radio, there was one about comic books in the 1950s, which was powered by some pretty familiar, sensational news reports.
INTERVIEWER What about the effect of these comic books on the children?
EXPERT All of our testimonies from psychiatrist and children themselves show that it's very upsetting. It has a bad moral effect and that it is directly responsible for a substantial amount of juvenile delinquency and child crime. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY That's amazing.
MICAH LOEWINGER There are even Senate hearings featuring psychiatrist Friedrich Wertham, whose research isn't exactly held in high esteem nowadays.
FRIEDRICH WERTHAM I hate to say that, Senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry. They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of four before they can read. [END CLIP]
BRANDY ZADROZNY Woah.
MICAH LOEWINGER Sorry, I shouldn't laugh at that.
AMY ORBEN No, it's wild. So Friedrich Wertham wrote about comic books. The issue is, and I quote, chronic stimulation, temptation and seduction are contributing factors to many children's mal-adjustments. And then only a couple of years later, you have the television and certain movies like Superman being seen as exactly the same thing. We see people using a whole new technology and we see something else we really care about. And then we link the two, whether that social media and mental health or videogames and aggression.
MICAH LOEWINGER And one big problem with this cycle, says Amy Orben, is that the technological development and public discourse tend to move. Way faster than the scientific community.
AMY ORBEN Because scientific evidence is so slow to accumulate. We never really get to any real, concrete policy outcomes until the next technology comes around that people are more concerned about and they just forget the previous technology.
MICAH LOEWINGER And as she points out, a new technology is always going to be the easiest scapegoat. You know, if we put aside social media for a second. Nowadays, there are so many ways of explaining why young people may be behaving in a certain way. You know, root causes, any number of socioeconomic factors. Maybe their parents aren't around because they're working multiple jobs and maybe they're stressed out about school shootings. And, you know, having spent two plus years of remote learning, I mean, Brandy, your parent, fill in the rest of the list.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Why kids behave the way they do?
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh, God, I don't know.
BRANDY ZADROZNY I just have the kids. I don't understand them. None of us do. But I think that's your point, right? To look at any technology and say there's the reason. That's – that's a wild thing to do.
MICAH LOEWINGER Yeah, exactly.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So, okay, let's distill it down. When listeners encounter stories about dangerous trends on TikTok, what should they look out for.
MICAH LOEWINGER One? Are these reports giving you actual examples of the so-called trend. Two do the journalists offer some kind of data about how big of a trend this is? Three, if the story says young people are being harmed by this, is there evidence this is happening beyond just a couple anecdotes? And four, is this so-called trend really new? If you give it a quick Google, you'll probably find out like in 5 minutes.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Micah, thank you very much.
MICAH LOEWINGER Thank you.