“I think TikTok can read my mind. I’d be walking in town, smell food and crave a hotdog and then boom… the first video I see on my feed is someone putting tomato sauce on a hotdog. And I just wonder how? How does TikTok know?” -Grade 7 Learner, Zidwe.
This is not the first time heavy TikTok users have recounted their uncanny experiences with the platform’s “mind-reading” abilities. As far as I go to host workshops I am inundated by tweens, teens and parents ready to recount a time where TikTok fed them their own thoughts.
HOW DOES THE ALGORITHM WORK?
TikTok’s algorithm is:
A set of computerised instructions that works out what you like and then feeds you more of it. It collects your data such as age, interests, and gender. Based on this, it recommends content to you.
The For You page on TikTok is highly accurate and becomes more so, the more time you spend on the app. This way, users get a highly personalised experience worth returning for again and again.
DOES TIKTOK COLLECT MY FACE?
Did you know that TikTok also uses facial data to customise your feed? Every time you upload a video on TikTok or use a face filter, the app is gathering your facial data. In a study by Dr. Neils Wouter from the University of Melbourne it was found that:
The app also accesses draft TikToks that have not yet been posted to draw personal information and create more accurate digital profiles of its users.
According to an in-depth investigation by Hack and Four Corners it also accesses photos and videos in your gallery to ensure suggested videos hits the spot every time you open the app.
WHY ARE RABBIT HOLES ON TIKTOK HARMFUL?
With data collection completed, TikTok tries to keep you engaged for as long as possible by feeding you content that pikes your interest. Sometimes just to keep your attention this content can get more extreme and even disturbing.
This is where the rabbit holes of harmful content enter:
Suddenly the user is consuming content that polarises her thinking and that may drive her thoughts, beliefs and behaviors toward weight loss.
HOW IS TIKTOK DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS?
TikTok is different from Facebook and Instagram in that users have less control what the app dishes up in their For You feed. While eating disorder-content may be classified as harmful on Facebook and Instagram, TikTok reports that this type of content does not go against their community guidelines.
The content on the app is also difficult to manage as it is user-generated and subjective. Human moderation is required to keep the platform free of dark content. However, what may be disturbing to one user could be entertaining to another and so harmful content slips through the cracks.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
To get a further understanding of how TikTok’s algorithm works watch this Exposé by The Wall Street Journal.
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