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TikTok Ban: How Chinese app went from hotbed of sex trafficking and exploitation to safe space for youngsters

Popular among elementary and middle school-aged children, TikTok created a space for sexual grooming by abusers and sex traffickers
Guests attend TikTok Halloween Party (Getty Images)
Guests attend TikTok Halloween Party (Getty Images)

Who isn't crazy about those short dance, lip-sync, bizarre, and funny TikTok videos? The Chinese video-sharing social networking service owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet technology company, soon gained much prominence among teenagers after its launch in 2017 for iOS and Android outside of China. But it only came to the United States after it merged with on August 2, 2018. 

Barely two years have passed since then, but TikTok seems to become a viral sensation for most 15-year-olds and new stars like Charli D’Amelio, Chase Hudson, Zach King, Loren Gray, Baby Ariel, Lisa, and Lena. But, now the latest reports say US President Donald Trump will put a complete ban on it. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Trump said: "As far as TikTok is concerned, we're banning them from the United States."

While it may be a great pastime, TikTok has also stirred quite an addiction cycle among youngsters and an addiction-reduction feature was also added to the app. Not just that, the content being shared on the platform has been up for debate for a long time. In fact, in several cases, the videos and content have also been labeled as "obscene, immoral, vulgar and pornographic" in nature. 

With over 800 million users, a 2019 report by GlobalWebIndex said 41% of the users are aged between 16 and 24 and it gives the liberty to share, comment, save, and like other users’ content even if they are not following them. Popular among elementary and middle school-aged children, it created a space for sexual grooming by abusers and sex traffickers. 

Charli D'Amelio and Dixie D'Amelio  (Getty Images)

In 2020, TikTok was named in the Dirty Dozen List due to its failure to combat sexual predators grooming minors of sexual abuse or sex trafficking. Tagged as a 'pedophile paradise', an investigation led by The Sun concluded that the app is a “magnet for pedophiles." John Carr, one of the UK’s leading experts on child online safety, told The Sun, “There’s no question an app like this is a magnet for pedophiles.” He continued, “When a young girl dances in skimpy clothes or imitates sexy dances, you’re sure to find people in the comments either asking them to continue making these kinds of videos, saying they’re sexy or asking for their Snapchat or DM [to direct message]. Some of these girls are not even ten years old.”

However, the video-sharing social networking service soon took a call and made efforts to address those concerns from parents of young boys and girls. In a cautionary note on its official website, TikTok alerted parents about setting their child's profile to private. Nevertheless, “even with a private account, profile information – including profile photo, username, and bio – will be visible to all users.” Soon, the app rolled out a "family safety mode" setting to allow tighter control as it allows parents and guardians to link their account to their child's, to have direct control over the safety settings.

The adults must open the app on both phones, head to the "digital wellbeing" settings, and turn on and off the restricted mode, messages as well as screen time controls. For those timely efforts, The National Center on Sexual Exploitation applauded TikTok. “These improvements were vital because TikTok has historically employed some of the weakest safety features in the social media ecosystem, which has caused it to become a breeding ground for sexual abuse and sextortion,” said Haley McNamara, Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.

JaNINA, Jena Frumes, Adam Waheed, and Model Roz attend TikTok Halloween Party on October 31, 2019 in Los Angeles, California (Getty Images)

“For example, TikTok’s Restricted Mode had to be re-set every 30 days, thus putting an undue burden on children to re-protect themselves over and over again from seeing sexually exploitive or other inappropriate content. That is why TikTok was contacted by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and placed on the 2020 Dirty Dozen List for facilitating sexual abuse.”

“We applaud TikTok for their new release of Family Safety Mode, which addresses many of the concerns our organization has brought to their attention. This Family Safety Mode will allow parents to set up Restricted Mode and to set limits on strangers direct messaging their children, a feature that has often been used by predators to groom children for sexual abuse or trafficking. While more improvements are necessary, we are glad that TikTok is beginning to address the issues we have raised in a tangible way.”

With time, TikTok went from being a hotbed of sex trafficking and exploitation to safe space for youngsters. For teens, it's sad that the app might be soon banned and they wouldn't be able to follow their favorite stars or post their own videos. However, whether or not sex trafficking stopped on the platform is a debate for another day.

On the Internet, many feel Trump is banning TikTok because it has fueled the sex trafficking ring. One user said, "Trump is banning TikTok because of how much Gen Z has exposed. No one would’ve known about the Wayfair sex trafficking scandal if it wasn’t for TikTok. The elites are worried," and another posted, "It’s important because TikTok is a platform where a huge part of the sex trafficking is occurring. Please do your research."