The Impact of Cyber-Based Sexual Abuse

Within the last decade, cyberbullying has emerged as a pernicious new form of bullying that breaks the spirits of our nation’s children. It has been deemed a public health issue[1] and is a matter of serious concern to our organization.

We are especially concerned by evidence which shows that some cyberbullying activity involves sexual harassment and coercion. It is our view that much of the activity referred to under the guise of “sexting” actually represents cyber-based sexual abuse. For instance, offline sexual coercion has been “significantly associated with sending and being asked for a naked image, as well as receiving a naked image without giving permission.”[2] Researchers have also documented “aggravated” forms of “sexting” that may involve adults soliciting sexual images from minors, as well as criminal or abusive behavior by minors such as extortion, or the creation and sending of images without the knowledge of the minors pictured.[3]

Sexting generally has been linked to risky behaviors, as well as sexual abuse and violence. Italian researchers report that of the 536 participants aged 13 to 18 (who were part of a larger study of sexting behaviors), 79.5% reported having sexted at least once, and 8.2% publicly posted a sext as least once.[4] This is terribly disconcerting, as in some instances such sexting could constitute self-produced child pornography. Importantly, extending previous similar findings, the researchers found that of the total 1334 person sample studied (aged 13 to 30):

  • 13% sexted during substance use at least once;
  • 30% had been forced to sext by a partner at least once;
  • 10% had been forced to sext by friends at least once;
  • 95% had sent sexts to strangers;
  • 59% had sent sexts about someone else [sometimes referred to as “secondary sexting”] without her/his consent at least once.[5]

Further, their results confirmed a relationship between sexting and dating violence: “Specifically, moderate and high users of sexting are more likely to be perpetrators of dating violence, including online, than low users of sexing.”[6] Sexting has also been linked to smoking, substance use, alcohol abuse, and binge drinking.[7]

These finds should deeply concern TikTok. With more than 500 million active users worldwide, rates like those have significant implications, especially when TikTok’s reputation is well known for being a social media platform for minors.[8] Although, TikTok deleted many accounts that were assumed to be users under the age 13, undoubtedly, younger minors are still prevalently using the app.[9]

Another case in point pertains to TikTok’s live stream feature. We have observed hypersexualized and explicit sexual content being broadcasted by users on this feature. Additionally, many parents and children have reviewed TikTok negatively due to sexually explicit content on the platform.[10]  Users of TikTok’s services—who are permitted by your Terms of Service to be as young as 13-years-old—are not equipped by TikTok with tools to block exploitive material themselves. 

These issues—cyberbullying, cyber-based sexual abuse, and sexting—are impacting an entire generation of American youth, and much more needs to be done to prevent their deepening harms. Thus, it is inexcusable that in its Community Guidelines, TikTok attempts to address serious issues such as those outlined above in the Community Guidelines, but then does not show follow through in ridding the platform of sexual abusers.


[1] Charisse L. Nixon, “Current Perspectives: The Impact of Cyberbullying on Adolescent Health,” Adolescent Health, Medicine, and Therapeutics 5, (2014): 143–158.

[2] HyeJeong Choi, Joris Van Ouytsel, and Jeff R. Temple, “Association between Sexting and Sexual Coercion among Female Adolescents,” Journal of Adolescence 53, (2016): 164–168.

[3] Janis Wolak and David Finkelhor, “Sexting: A Typology,” (Crimes Against Children Research Center, 2011)

[4] Mara Morelli, personal communication, February 20, 2017.

[5] Mara Morelli, Dora Bianchi, Roberto Baiocco, Lina Pezzuti, and Antonio Chirumbolo, “Sexting, Psychological Distress and Dating Violence among Adolescents and Young Adults,” Psicothema 28, no. 2 (2016): 137–142, http://www.psicothema.com/pdf/4303.pdf, (accessed July 26, 2019).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sehl, Katie. “What is TikTok, Who Uses it, and Should Brands Care About It?” Hootsuite. (May 2019). https://blog.hootsuite.com/what-is-tiktok/ (accessed July 26, 2019)

[9] Malik, Daniyal. “TikTok Is Deleting All Users Under 13 Years-Old.” Digital Information World. (March 2019). https://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2019/03/tiktok-is-deleting-all-users-under-13.html (accessed July 26, 2019)

[10] Monticello Kievlan, Patricia. “TikTok- Real Short Videos.” Common Sense Media. (n.d.)https://www.commonsensemedia.org/app-reviews/musically-your-video-social-network (accessed July 26, 2019)

 

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