TikTok says it has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy toward child predator behavior. But it has failed to remove them from its platform.
A BBC investigation found that accounts created by young people who report sexual messages often see no action taken. The investigation set up an account that seemingly belongs to a 14-year-old girl. When the account received explicit sexual messages from an adult male, the account reported the messages. But nothing happened.
TikTok says it failed to remove the child predator because the reporting account wasn’t clear enough.
BBC Panorama says that’s false. In setting up the investigation, each of the seven chat messages was reported using TikTok’s own reporting tools. Each report explicitly mentioned receiving direct messages (DMs) on TikTok of a sexual nature. TikTok told investigators that it tries to respect its users’ privacy and that complaints “do not generally trigger a review” of DMs.
Child predators use the platform to groom and exploit children who are caught unaware. TikTok has placed some restrictions on accounts belonging to people 16 or under. For example, they can’t send or receive direct messages from other TikTok users. Many kids get around this by lying about their birth date when joining the platform.
BBC investigators followed this course of action, signing up for a fully-privileged account for 16+. But in the account’s profile, researchers made it clear the owner is a 14-year-old girl. A 23-year-old researcher began posing as the 14-year-old online, posting TikTok videos of her doing dances. She also included innocuous hashtags like #schoollife and #schooluniform.
Over the lifetime of the account, it quickly began gaining followers from mostly older men. One man sent the account a series of DMs one night, describing his penis in explicit detail.
When the researcher responded, asking how old the man was, he replied he was 34. When she responded that she was 14, he replied, “Ohhh, you are under age, sorry.” He no longer responded to her but continued to like the account’s videos.
All of the offending messages were sent to TikTok in a report detailing the sexual harassment. Researchers say after three days, the man’s TikTok account was still active. At that point, researchers reached out to TikTok to ask why they took no action against a known child predator. After speaking with TikTok, the next day, researchers noted the account was banned, and his smartphone’s IMEI number was blocked.
TikTok’s moderators also terminated the accounts of two other men who sent explicit messages. In both cases, the banned men continued to send explicit messages after learning the ‘owner’ of the account was 14.