This November 22, the parallel universe of TikTok looks like a windowless room in a dead end of the Sentier in Paris. The French subsidiary of the Chinese social network has chosen this place to communicate on its initiatives intended to protect the youngest. In this kind of exercise, a manager makes a presentation with strong facts and figures, takes questions, sometimes continues the discussion over coffee by providing contextual elements and the case is closed.
There, the device is different. A woman who introduces herself as a journalist explains that she is going to moderate a debate with three guests for about forty-five minutes and that the questions will be dispatched in a quarter of an hour. The speakers are: TikTok’s director of public affairs – Sarah Khemis, an overqualified lawyer -, a child and adolescent psychologist, and a “creator” on TikTok, a high school physics-chemistry teacher, who produces a mass of mini-videos which will not earn him the Nobel Prize but which appeal to his hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
Sarah Khemis does her job by detailing the protective features of TikTok, with bans, – no network before 13 years old, no direct messaging before 16 years old, bans on posting fake news, racist videos and comments, etc. Incidentally, we learn that the TiKTok algorithm is designed not to lock the user into a depressive spiral – the heart of the matter, but for the details we will come back. Besides, it doesn’t seem to interest anyone in the small audience essentially made up of bloggers.
Such concern for child protection is a relief. Except that the reality is different: interviewed later as part of an upcoming survey, Nadia, 13, says she arrived on the network at 11 years old. As she indicated that she was born in 2000 and that TikTok does not verify the age of users, she is now showered with videos aimed at young girls ten years older.
But don’t let the facts get in the way of good propaganda. And Sarah Khemis adds that screen time can be controlled by parents (the first threshold is still 40 minutes and goes up to two hours – per day). It borders on insolence when you ask Sarah what proportion of parents have spent twenty minutes finding the anti-addiction parameters. “We don’t give numbers on that, sorry.” Not a very good sign. It must be said that you have to be an exemplary parent to find these protections in the depths of the app, exchange QR codes with your kid, etc. When we ask the director of public affairs why Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok is much more restrictive for the youngest, “I don’t care about it. I’m on the French version”.
Too bad because we want to know: two weeks ago, Tristan Harris, a tech ethicist trained at Stanford and who heads the Center for Humane Technologyconfided to the magazine of CBS 60 Minutes : “TikTok reserves the organic version of its app for the Chinese market and floods the world with the opium version”. This is much more restrictive and its algorithm primarily serves educational, scientific (and also patriotic) videos to very young Chinese people, says Harris. And the researcher cites an international study where, when asked about their future aspirations, American pre-teens say they want to become “influencer” while the Chinese say “astronaut”.
The highlight of the TikTok France briefing remains the intervention of the psychologist who treats children and teenagers in his association and in his office. To clarify: it is normal and even desirable for a social platform like TiKTok to partner with experts to assess the impact of its service. For the same reasons, the company also works with specialists in eating disorders, another plague of social networks.
But the speech of the professional surprises. Excerpts: “…Social networks offer a framework for adolescents. They give them the feeling of belonging to a community where they can reassure themselves because they find themselves among peers…Like a child who needs to be contained , like a baby that we take in our arms (he mimics the gesture), TikTok plays this container aspect [psychologique]…”. He evokes the case of a teenager paralyzed by girls and who found peace in being able, says the shrink, to “test” the reactions of girls. “It’s still a great tool, and I think we can thank social networks for giving them these little moments of experience”.
A search in English-language academic databases with the terms “TikTok self-esteem” returns dozens of duly validated articles that confirm the harmful effects of the network on the minds of adolescent girls. But recalling it elicits a vague response and a remark about the excessively black portrayal of social media in the media. At the end of this curious moment, Sarah Khemis slips away to shoot a video. We nevertheless try to extract a business card from him because we will have to see each other again. Polite refusal. No, no card. The press attachés intervene courteously. You will have to go through them.
Bytedance, the parent company is not a start-up, but a multinational media company. This year, TikTok and its Chinese version Douyin are expected to achieve $12 billion in revenue. We are therefore entitled to wonder how Bytedance allows communication to be so disconnected from the real issues.