Dangerous dares and anonymous predators – are your kids safe on TikTok?

STRAPPED tightly to a stretcher and with her neck in a brace, 15-year-old Sarah Platt sobbed in pain. Having started the day at a February half-term hockey camp, Sarah now lay in hospital, fearing she might never walk again. 

But this was not the result of a nasty collision on the pitch. Sarah had, in fact, taken part in TikTok’s skull-breaker challenge – in which victims’ legs are kicked from under them as they jump in the air. 

The video-sharing app is famed for its popular lip-syncing crazes and dance routines. but also its viral challenges. Since skull-breaker began in February, dozens of people around the world have been hurt or hospitalised, while two deaths have been reported as a result of injury following attempts at the craze.

Sarah assumed her teammates would catch her fall, but instead she landed on her upper back and neck, breaking several bones. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw her in A&E,” says Sarah’s mum Jane, 55, from Oxfordshire. “She burst into tears, saying: ‘I’m so sorry’. I started crying too, because seeing your child in that state is the worst thing.” 

As they waited for Sarah to be assessed by medics, stay-at-home mum Jane felt furious that such reckless behaviour was effectively being endorsed by TikTok. While in hospital, she took to Facebook and shared the video footage of the stunt from Sarah’s phone, writing: ‘Please, please if you have teenagers doing TikToks do not get them involved in this.’ The clip went viral, attracting more than 8,000 shares and 100,000 views. 

“I never intended that,” says Jane. “But I was furious and wanted to warn other parents.”

Jane’s concerns were understandable, as TikTok recently overtook Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp as the world’s most popular non-gaming app. During the week PM Boris Johnson announced the Covid-19 lockdown in late March, UK downloads soared by 34%. 

Formerly known as Musical.ly, the app was launched in 2014. There are now 800 million active users in 150 countries, with the business valued at £60billion. And though 41% of users are aged 16-24, children as young as seven or eight regularly use it – despite the recommended age limit of 13. 

TikTok’s growing army of fans create short videos and gifs to attract likes and followers. The phrase: “I want to be TikTok famous,” has become enshrined in youth speak, and many see the app as a path to celebrity status and a lucrative influencer career. For a small minority, fame can hit astounding heights: just ask the world’s most successful TikTokker, 18-year-old US singer Loren Gray – who boasts 43 million followers, 2.4 billion likes and has a rumoured net worth of £4million. 

While some challenges clearly pose safety risks – such as the cha-cha slide, where motorists swerve their steering wheel in time to music – others raise even more red flags. The coronavirus challenge urged users to lick toilet seats, goading others to do likewise. Dozens around the world have also been hospitalised after copying videos claiming that drinking industrial-strength alcohol will keep Covid-19 at bay. 

Psychologist Katie Woodland says the popularity of these challenges is due to a combination of peer pressure and craving acceptance. 

“Risk-taking behaviours are a way of enhancing social status, where the reward – likes, shares and comments – outweigh the risk,” she explains. “With the predominant TikTok demographic being teenagers and young adults, the entire platform acts like a peer group. So if a video is getting lots of traction, they find it difficult to resist the pull of rewards from their peers.”

She could have ended up in a wheelchair

The website Tiktokdeath.com cites more than 50 deaths globally from falls, choking and drowning incidents related to the platform, as well as multiple shootings. The site also lists a number of suicides that have allegedly been live-streamed on the app. However, TikTok insists it removes harmful videos as soon as possible, with a spokesperson telling Fabulous: “Our community guidelines clearly outline that we do not allow content that encourages, promotes or glorifies dangerous activities that might lead to injury.”

But it’s the potentially lethal skull-breaker challenge that has become the most notorious – and for Sarah, now 16, it nearly changed her life forever.

On February 19 this year, Jane dropped Sarah at school near the family home in Banbury, and two hours later, she received a call to say Sarah had been involved in an accident.  

With husband Mitt, 67, working at his garage business, Jane rushed to nearby Horton General Hospital, where her daughter was taped to a spinal board. “She was in agony and sobbing. Watching the video on her phone, I felt sick to my stomach. Sarah knew she’d been very silly, but there was peer pressure involved and she was called a ‘scaredy-cat’ for not wanting to do it. Fortunately, she fell on AstroTurf, which softened her fall. If it’d been concrete, things could have been much worse.”

As it was, Sarah was still in a bad way. “It had poured with rain while they waited for the ambulance, so she → was drenched. She screamed in pain when they moved her,” says Jane.

“When she said she couldn’t feel her right leg, I was terrified. We both feared her spinal cord was damaged – meaning she might never walk again.”  

Thankfully, following six X-rays and a CT scan the next day, the news was good. “She had ligament and tissue damage and bone fractures in her neck, but the doctors said they would heal. She was lucky, because she could have ended up in a wheelchair – or died,” adds Jane.

After four days, Sarah was allowed home, and the following day she returned to school on crutches. 

Four months on, aside from occasional back twinges, Sarah’s recovery is almost complete. “She doesn’t blame anyone and she’ll certainly never do anything so stupid again – but she does still do TikTok dances,” says Jane. She believes banning Sarah from using the app altogether would only add to its allure. However, she is concerned that other parents are not aware of the risks.

Eight days after Jane’s viral Facebook post showing Sarah’s fall, TikTok issued a statement reminding users that dangerous challenges are forbidden. The firm’s spokesperson also told Fabulous a warning message now automatically appears whenever a term like #skullbreakerchallenge is searched for: “These remind users not to imitate or encourage public participation in stunts that could lead to serious injury or death.” 

Although TikTok has stepped up its messaging about the unacceptable nature of certain challenges, there is now growing concern about child grooming. Online predators are posing as children to lure young victims, often sending explicit messages or bribing them with gifts in exchange for X-rated photos. In April 2019, a BBC investigation found hundreds of children had received explicit messages via the app, and a report by the NSPCC last year said the platform was responsible for six recorded child sex offences. 

One parent who is deeply worried about the risk of sexual exploitation is Niki Parker, 37, a trainee children’s counsellor from Nuneaton. She has banned her two daughters Mili-Li, 11, and Libby-Mae, seven, from using the app, saying: “There’s a horrible side to it.” 

Niki initially opened an account in her name in August 2018, after Mili-Li begged to do the dances like her school friends. But when she took a closer look, Niki was shocked at what she found. “Within minutes I’d seen a clip of a girl threatening to kill herself, as well as swearing and bullying. One of Mili-Li’s friends had sent a message calling another girl ‘a f**king brat,’ and I saw videos of 13-year-olds in skimpy tops with their boobs out. I deleted the app straight away,” she says. 

Niki knew she’d made the right decision when, a few weeks later, a friend revealed her young daughter had been groomed. 

“My friend was in a state, saying she’d found messages from someone pretending to be the same age as her daughter. Within two days he went from praising her cat drawings to initiating sexual role play. He called her a ‘naughty little kitty’ and said he wanted to spank her bottom,” says Niki. “My friend reported it to the police, but they couldn’t do anything because the account had already vanished.”

TikTok insists it has a zero tolerance stance around sexual exploitation and grooming, but ex-police officer John Staines says the fact users can operate anonymously is a big problem. “Paedophiles are invisible on there. It’s hard to regulate – and they rely on parents being unaware of their children’s online activity,” he says.

John and his colleague John Woodley, also a former police officer, run Esafetytraining.org, which offers guidance about the online world to kids, parents and businesses. After working together in child protection at Essex Police, the pair – who are both also fathers – say we must be more media-savvy. “We teach our kids how to cross the road, but not how to use the internet safely,” says John Staines. “As a parent, you’ve got to understand your kids’ world, and therefore these apps.”

However, he strongly advises against banning TikTok altogether. “Young people are incredibly resourceful and even primary school kids tell us they use TikTok behind their parents’ backs – often on an old device they’ve found in a drawer,” says John. “There are lots of safety features that can protect children, but you’ve got to study them properly,” he adds. 

These safety features include a Family Pairing mode – introduced in April – which enables parents to manage their children’s access. In addition, TikTok announced on April 16 its direct messaging function can now only be used by over-16s, while the age limit for broadcasting live video has risen from 13 to 18. 

“However, you can’t police it,” says John. “It’s not enforceable so the kids can fib about their ages. The eating challenges are also frightening,” he adds, referring to pranks where users consume large amounts of foods such as salt or chilli powder. “So many kids have allergies these days, so this is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Then there also are more humorous challenges such as the silly salmon, which involves jumping into a pool while flapping your legs like a fish. 

“We’re seeing ten-year-olds getting hurt because they’re leaping into a bush instead. They know it’s wrong, but they’re being bullied into it,” says John. “Children just want to fit in and kids today are social outcasts if they don’t have a smartphone and TikTok. That’s their normal.”

With such complex forces at play, it’s no wonder many parents believe children should simply be shielded from TikTok until they are better equipped to cope with it. 

Niki certainly has no regrets over her decision to ditch the app. “If your kids are harmed in some way, you can’t ever undo it, so for me it’s just not worth the risk.”

  • Visit Katiewoodland.co.uk

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