In the age of Covid-19, TikTok offers a crucial escape from the pressures of everyday life. It is a social media platform that is extremely popular with young people, especially teens and children. Despite being “intended for users age 13 and over”, a recent study by Ofcom found that half of British children are regularly using TikTok. Among those users aged between 8 and 15 years old, 50 per cent are uploading videos every week. Thus, children have a strong presence on TikTok.
This is why the launch of the government ‘Look Him In The Eyes’ campaign on TikTok has the potential to be extremely damaging to the mental health of young people, given the large percentage of children on the app. Featuring graphic images of the elder generation hooked up to ventilators, the campaign reminds people to ‘Stay Home, Protect the NHS and Save Lives’. Such forceful and harmful messaging from the government comes as many parents voice increasing concerns about the safety of their children on TikTok.
The combination of school closures and multiple nationwide lockdowns has already limited the contact between children and the outside world. Many have turned to TikTok as a way to connect with people and to relieve the pressures of living and working from home. It is therefore shocking that the government think it appropriate to sponsor videos that demand children “Look Him In The Eyes” on a platform that is designed for entertainment. TikTok should remain a safe haven for young people who are doubtless already overwhelmed not only by the pressures of home-schooling but also the constant influx of news related to the pandemic. Watching viral cat videos and teaching yourself the latest dance challenge should not co-exist with government messaging about the spread of coronavirus.
No child should be forced to witness a member of an older generation in hospital, even if it is an actor in a government-sponsored ad. Whereas an adult can differentiate between reality and reconstruction, a child may simply assume the person on their “For You” page is genuinely at risk. Furthermore, the individuals featured in these 20 second videos could easily be seen to represent a grandparent or an older member of the family. Any trauma associated with losing a loved one is now supercharged by the fear that the child watching could somehow be responsible. For an adult, it is easy to ignore this type of content and to rationalise government policy. However, for a child on TikTok, these videos are at best ineffective and at worse triggering. Parents do of course have a responsibility to educate their children on what they ‘can’ and ‘cannot’ do, but that should not involve threatening them with the death of complete strangers. How then does the government think they have the right to do just that on TikTok?
At such an early stage in their development, children do not have the proper tools to cope with these potentially traumatic government ads in a mature way. As of March 2020, one in six children are estimated to have a mental health problem, according to the latest Children’s Commissioner report. This represents an increase of 50 per cent in the last three years, and will likely have sky-rocketed as a result of the pandemic. If the government continues to endorse content designed to frighten, rather than educate the younger population, it will only increase the pressures of adapting to a post-pandemic world.
TikTok should not be included as part of the latest government public health campaign. Young people deserve the chance to escape the trials and tribulations of the outside world. While children should be educated about the pandemic and its consequences, it needs to be in a sensitive and age-appropriate fashion. For the government to force them to watch such graphic content is cruel and inhumane.