How dangerous is TikTok? Italian girl’s death reignites debate

As Italy tries to explain the role of a viral challenge in the death of a 10-year-old girl, TikTok's ability to protect children online is once again being questioned. — dpa

As Italy tries to explain the role of a viral challenge in the death of a 10-year-old girl, TikTok’s efforts to protect children online are once again being questioned. Psychologists and media experts say it’s too easy to just blame social media.

TikTok, already struggling with bad press casting it as a source of grooming and online addiction, is once again making headlines raising concerns about the well-being of children watching and posting videos on its platform.

Following the death of a 10-year-old Italian girl, apparently after taking part in a social media challenge on TikTok, parents in Italy and elsewhere are once again worried about the platform’s handling of potential threats to children’s safety.

The young girl called Antonella strangled herself with a belt at home in Palermo, Sicily, and was rushed to hospital on the evening of Jan 20 by her family after she was discovered by her sister, local media reported. Doctors were unable to save her and declared her brain dead, a spokeswoman for Di Cristina hospital said.

Authorities believe she wanted to take part in a so-called blackout challenge, popular on the short video app, in which users strangle themselves, film it and post the footage online.

The death has reignited a debate around TikTok’s approach to child users, as well as the increase in screen time during the pandemic.

It also came just days after TikTok announced a number of new measures aimed at protecting children, notably from grooming – an often-reported problem on this platform, which owes much of its fame to teens singing in their bedrooms.

TikTok stipulates a minimum age of 13 to sign up and the age of 18 for full access to features, such as private messaging, making an account public and allowing strangers to comment on videos.

Teens also need a parent’s permission to sign up. And yet many minors are thought to lie about their age to sign up and gain full access.

Experts have again been debating whether the age controls are effective and what the alternatives might be. Some experts argued that providers could determine the age of users by their behaviour – if they wanted to.

The Italian Data Protection Authority, a parliamentary body, has since demanded that TikTok immediately suspend accounts for which it could not verify the age of the user.

Psychologists and youth experts cited in Italian media on Friday called for lawmakers to consider tightening up laws on children’s use of mobile phones and social networks.

“The issue of age verification – so-called age gating – is an industry-wide challenge that we are working on together with authorities and our industry partners,” TikTok said as part of its latest campaign to protect minors.

Stefano Vicari, a Rome-based psychiatrist for adolescents, said there were good reasons why children under 12 should not use mobile phones alone. And yet social media is not the only factor in self-harm.

While TikTok’s efforts may be limiting the risks for underage users, experts believe many children will still look for ways to gain public attention online.

“Social media is easy to blame,” says social media expert Vincenzo Cosenza, but cautions that parents also need to ensure their children’s use of social media is safe.

Media coach Kristin Langer says parents need to be prepared for discussions about whether TikTok posts can be public or restricted.

By the age of 12 (or earlier), adolescents no longer want to hide away and want to feel like a pop star and get recognition, she says. They want more than just their friends or family to see their videos and posts.

“Social media is easy to blame,” he judged.

Deborah Woldemichael, who works with an EU-funded initiative aimed at protecting children online, says if parents “allow their children to use it, then they should accompany them and support them if there are problems.”

Guardians should go through the account settings together with their children and also regularly check what their child is watching on TikTok and whether the app is causing them stress.

In the wake of Antonella’s death, data protection commissioner Guido Scorza spoke of possible fines of millions of euros against TikTok if the company did not better control the age of its users.

Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando, writing on Facebook, said debate about how young people use smartphones and social media is long overdue, “especially in the time of this pandemic, which has pushed us more and more towards digital communication”.

“TikTok is used in Italy by about 10 million people every month, according to my analyses. It is a means of expression especially for the youngest,” says social media expert Cosenza.

“The TikTok video camera represents something like the mirror of their room, a screen to express themselves and interact with the world.”

Although the company uses algorithms and human teams to trawl for dangerous content on the platform, not everything can be found and removed.

“The technology companies have to make an effort, but an education on how to properly use the Internet has to start with the family.” – dpa

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