TikTok algorithm in the crosshairs after the death of a 10-year-old girl

13 mei 2022

13:51

The parents of a deceased Philadelphia girl are suing TikTok. The girl entered a deadly challenge, which appeared on the video app among her featured videos. ‘The algorithm found that video suitable. She died as a result.’

When Nylah Anderson (10) scrolled through TikTok in December, a video about the blackout challenge appeared on the personalized ‘for you’ page. A dangerous game with the aim of holding your breath until you lose consciousness for a few seconds.

The essence

  • A 10-year-old American girl has died after participating in a dangerous TikTok challenge.
  • Her parents are suing the video app TikTok because the girl discovered the challenge through the app.
  • The algorithm of the popular youth app generates more attention for controversial and risky content.
  • Despite criticism, social media platforms are reluctant to adjust their algorithms because their profits depend on it.

The short ‘blackout’ should cause a trance, which young people then film and put online. But for some, the game ends fatally. Nylah Anderson ended up in hospital and died after five days in the intensive care unit.

Algorithm

The girl’s parents accuse TikTok that their daughter saw the video about the blackout challenge. They are suing TikTok and parent company ByteDance for negligence. The algorithm decided that the deadly blackout challenge was suitable for 10-year-old Nyla Anderson and might interest her. She died as a result,” the indictment reads.

TikTok will not comment on the pending lawsuit, but previously said the blackout challenge has been around for a long time. “People hear about it from sources other than TikTok. The challenge has been around longer than our platform.’

Strictly speaking, Nylah Anderson may have picked up the challenge from another platform as well. But an analysis of her smartphone shows that she had TikTok open when she choked herself. The video app promises to remove content about the blackout challenge from the app, but that obviously doesn’t always happen.

risk behavior

The issue raises classic questions about the responsibility of social media platforms such as TikTok. ‘The Tiktok algorithm presents users with videos that others have already watched’, says Tom De Leyn, who is researching social media and its use by young people at Ghent University. ‘The effect is that spectacular videos attract more viewers and therefore receive even more attention. The algorithm rewards risky behaviour.’

Disinformation is also getting a boost on TikTok. De Leyn: ‘If you want to check whether a video is real, you watch it more often. You may have to look ten times. The algorithm then thinks: that’s interesting. That way you end up in a bubble of disinformation.’

According to De Leyn, parents would do well to explain the algorithm’s working method to their children. “Explain to them why they see certain content and make it clear that it doesn’t reflect reality,” he says. ‘A ban on these kinds of apps is the least effective. Then kids use it behind your back. Social media is ubiquitous, you can’t keep it out forever. Talking is better.’

It’s time for these dangerous challenges to end so other families don’t have to live with the same pain we do.

Taiwanna Anderson

Mother of deceased girl

social responsibility

‘Obviously, those companies don’t want to completely change their algorithm. It’s their profit model’, says De Leyn. ‘But these platforms also have a social responsibility to create a safe environment for users. There may be more pressure from politicians and society as a whole to adjust their algorithms. Although this is difficult to enforce in practice because these companies operate worldwide.’

The parents of the late Nylah Anderson hope that the judge will also push TikTok in America with his nose on his responsibility. “It’s time for these dangerous challenges to end so other families don’t have to live in the same pain we do,” said Taiwanna Anderson, the girl’s mother.

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