TikTok’s explosion in popularity in recent years marks a new era in Generation Z-dominated internet culture, and the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down. TikTok had amassed over 689 million active users as of January 2021, and over 60% of them were people under 30 — including many Gen Z kids creating comedy, fashion, dance and beauty videos.
TikTok is known for its pageantry and trendiness, with young women and girls posting elaborate beauty transformations set to viral music and using flattering filters. Young women like Loren Grey and Charli D’Amelio are hugely responsible for many of TikTok’s trends as well as its popularity. And for a generation of young people that grew up on iPods and iPads, social media applications like TikTok are nothing new. Many image and video-focused social media applications like Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat carry much of the same content. However, TikTok’s interface has inspired staggering fashion and beauty trends often led by young women on the platform. One common video trend starts with a girl lip-syncing to music in a shabby outfit, looking moderately unkempt. The next moment — ideally at the drop of the beat — the girl transforms into a fashion fantasy, with wild clothing, hair and a pleased look on her face as she admires herself while dancing.
Despite its fun, the internet has never — and likely will never — be a safe place for young girls looking to express themselves. While scrolling, I often see TikToks of girls dressed in vibrant, show-stopping looks with a caption poking fun at potential conservative Karens who would disapprove. These bold young women echo feminist ideals of wearing whatever one wants, whether scantily-clad or conservatively dressed, no matter the opinions of society. I see their strong sense of identity and self-expression and feel happy that they’ve found a corner of the internet where they can confidently show off and unleash their creativity. At the same time, I feel an intuitive pull to warn them of their vulnerability.
Young people who routinely post themselves on TikTok risk exposing themselves to being digitally consumed, and even approached, by adult predators. Children ages 12 to 15, who comprise a significant chunk of TikTok users, are especially at risk for internet sexual harassment. In recent years, TikTok has been accused of being a hub for pedophiles with little punishment for those who engage inappropriately with minors. Even more concerning, rates of femicide, sexual violence and harassment against women, both in-person and online, have been climbing since the start of the pandemic. This is part of an overall uptick in online harassment against women and girls.
Participating in the fun of social media is a part of growing up in the digital age, and I wholeheartedly want to encourage the fun. And yet, the perspective of “I wear what I want, no matter the stares I get” is at odds with the notion that self-expression, creativity and sensuality are not safe to display online. Some may argue that it is not these girls’ responsibility to worry about getting harassed but rather men’s and other adults’ responsibility not to harass. While this may be true, it is an idealistic perspective and is not conducive to ensuring a generation of young women’s safety online. It brings me grief to think that fun-loving young people are not safe to embody the fullness of their creative expression online, but statistics of harassment point to this truth. As a fellow user myself, I will always support other girls’ creations, but, if I had a teenaged daughter, I would advise her not to post similar content or even create a TikTok account in the first place.
Unfortunately, the message that it is dangerous to celebrate our bodies online often becomes falsely mixed with the message that it is wrong, resulting in criticism and victim-shaming. As much as I would love to hand my support freely to those with high social media exposure, I’ve learned from personal experience the importance of remaining as anonymous as possible online; for example, “Don’t post a location or any drugs or alcohol” and “Don’t engage with strangers” are both lessons I’ve learned that I will pass on to my daughters, and they pain me. I want to be able to encourage my daughters to fully inhabit the beauty of their bodies and minds in digital spaces, but my conscience says I cannot take that risk. Online, we no longer have control over our content once it is posted. It enters the hands of thousands, if not millions, of other people to be saved, reposted and commented on. We no longer have control over our images and are at the same time responsible for any consequences that come of them.
It is not a question of whether it is morally acceptable to expose or creatively express oneself on the internet. Every woman at every age has a right to own the full expression of their femininity in whatever way she chooses. In a world where femininity is shamed, objectified and corrupted, the only rule should be that each woman decides her own rules. However, our safety is inherently at risk on the internet. When we limit our presence on social media, we avoid exposure to those who seek to harm us. Ultimately, TikTok is a digital fantasy that must be tempered with a dose of cautious reality in order to ensure the real-world safety of young women and girls.
Alexis Hancz is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.