Revealed: anti-vaccine TikTok videos being viewed by children as young as nine

Guardian Technology 08 Oct 2021 06:15

Lies and conspiracy theories about Covid-19, which have amassed millions of views and are accessible to young children, have been available on the social media platform TikTok for months.

TikTok accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers that discourage vaccination and peddle myths about Covid survival rates were uncovered by NewsGuard, an organisation that monitors online misinformation.

NewsGuard said it published its findings in June and sent them to the UK government and World Health Organization (WHO), but the content remained on the platform.

The revelation comes amid renewed concern about the impact that social media is having on young people, after it was reported that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, had internal research showing its app was harming teenagers.

As part of its investigation, NewsGuard said children as young as nine had been able to access the content, despite TikTok only permitting full access to the app for those aged 13 and over. Three participants in the organisation’s research who were under 13 were able to create accounts on the app by entering fake dates of birth.

Some of the accounts seen by the Guardian had posted individual videos containing Covid misinformation that had attracted up to 9.2m views. The misinformation included false comments about side-effects of specific brands of Covid vaccine and misleading comparisons between Covid survival rates and vaccine efficacy rates.

“This is made worse by the fact that the more anti-vaccine content kids interact with, the more anti-vaccine content they’ll be shown. If self-regulation isn’t working for social media platforms, then regulation, like the online safety bill, has to be the way forward to keep young people safe online.”

Cadier added: “The difficulty in really knowing the scale of this problem is that TikTok hold all the information and get to mark their own homework.

On Friday, the Financial Times reported an investigation by the digital rights charity 5Rights had alleged that dozens of tech companies, including TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram, were breaching the UK’s new children’s code, which protects children’s privacy online.

Violations of the code alleged by 5Rights include design tricks and nudges that encourage children to share their locations or receive personalised advertising, data-driven features that serve harmful material including on eating disorders, self-harm and suicide, and insufficient assurance of a child’s age, before allowing inappropriate actions such as video-chatting strangers.

One-quarter of TikTok’s 130 million monthly active users in the US were aged 10 to 19 as of March 2021 and nearly half of the total number of users were under 30, the data company Statista reported. In the UK, according to Statista, people under 25 represent 24% of all users.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, an internet conglomerate based in China.

The debate over younger people and their interaction with social media platforms has been reignited over the past month following the revelations that Instagram knew via internal research that its app was harming the mental health of some teenage girls.

The research about vaccination misinformation on TikTok comes after parents and teaching unions raised concerns that the jab rollout to children in England was “haphazard” and “incredibly slow”. Only 9% of 12- to 15-year-olds had been vaccinated by last Sunday, while new data released on Friday showed one in 14 had Covid last week.

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TikTokNewsGuardUK government and World Health OrganizationNewsGuardTikTok
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