Estimated reading time: 12 minute(s)

On February 17, 2022, Mr. Kenneth Garger published an article at the New York Post titled “Teen TikTok star reveals how father fatally shot armed stalker at Florida home.” Before I even read the content, I found something deeply troubling in the headline. No other great power in history would allow an adversary to conduct a mass social experiment on its children, but that is exactly what the United States is doing with respect to the Chinese Communist Party’s social experiment on America’s children. I am once again calling for TikTok to be banned. But with that important note submitted for the record, I move on to address other troubling things about this story.

A screenshot of TikTok in the /e/ OS App Center.
This monstrosity is available in the /e/ OS App Center. I was very careful to not accidentally click “Install” while taking this screenshot.

Our issue is not with the young TikTok starlet’s father shooting a dangerous stalker who showed up at their family home, but rather the events that led to that situation arising in the first place.

A Note From the Outset

The TikTok starlet at issue in the article is a public figure. However, since the premise of my article is that she should not have become a public figure in the way that she did, I will not refer to her by name in the post. If people find and read my post, let it not be because I used her name as an SEO term.

Lest anyone mistakenly think otherwise, I have no criticisms at all of the the young lady – only of the adults around her who allowed her to deal with matters that are beyond the competency of a 13-year old child. The TikTok starlet sounds like a perfectly nice girl and I hope that she comes away from a scary experience better for having learned lessons that she should not have had to learn in the time and manner that she learned them.

On Children and Internet Sharing

Before I examine the article itself, I must revisit a post that I published in November 2020 – right around when the stalking issue described in the New York Post article began. In that article – On Children and Internet Sharing – I articulated my view that adults, including parents, should not share pictures of and content about their children online. I will not rehash the entire post here, but rather quote the pertinent part of my argument:

‘[C]hildren have the right to think and feel for themselves.’ This is not a limitless right. It is the job of parents to teach children how to distinguish right from wrong, how to behave in public and private, how to pursue the good over the bad, and to protect children from the many evils and unpleasantness of the world

Nicholas A. Ferrell

My 2020 post focused on parents giving children space and an environment to reach an age where they can make informed decisions about how much personal information they want to share with the world. However, the emphasized portion of the above quote segues into today’s post. I noted that the right of children to think and feel for themselves is not limitless. Parents have a responsibility to guide children down the right path and to protect them from things that they are ill-equipped to handle as children. Moreover, providing children with a strong foundation will make it more likely that they will grow up to make sound decisions in the digital sphere.

In the 2020 post, I used an anime example to defend the right of children to think and feel for themselves. The iconic Kare Kano, localized as His and Her Circumstances, featured one episode wherein the two top students in their high school saw their grades dip very slightly on account of their somewhat neglecting their voracious studying while dating each other. I defended the view of the father of the young lady in that relationship that in light of the totality of the circumstances (pun intended), the decision of the young couple fell within the ambient of children having the right to think and feel for themselves. Even that scenario was not limitless. Had they become truants or started engaging in dangerous behavior , intervention may have been needed that it was not needed solely on account of their dropping a few spots in a test ranking.

Today’s story, to the contrary, shows the dark side of allowing children free rein to do things that are harmful to their well-being.

Let’s Read the Article on Children and TikTok

In order to discuss the article, we must actually read it. I will quote the pertinent parts.

The Journey to TikTok Stardom Begins at 13

To begin, when did the TikTok starlet begin her social media celebrity journey?

[She] created a TikTok account in 2020 when she was 13 and within a year attracted more than a million followers by sharing videos of herself dancing and lip-syncing to trend music.

“[C]reated a TikTok account in 2020 when she was 13…”

The intent behind the account was clearly to attract followers in the same manner that many others have succeeded in doing on TikTok. Is this something that 13-year old children, and if we are being honest about the state of the world and the internet, 13-year old girls should be doing?

Moreover, I will note that my good friend and New Leaf Journal colleague Victor V. Gurbo, who has some experience on TikTok (unfortunately), added that there are many unavoidable things on the platform that children should not be consuming.

Fear not, however. It gets worse.

Personal Interactions With Fans

One may think that allowing a 13-year old girl to undertake a personal journey to celebrity on TikTok is questionable, but some of the questionable aspects may be ameliorated if she had a sort of manager. To be sure, I doubt many child actors interact with fans directly without an adult intermediary.

During the early part of the pandemic, the teen noticed she kept receiving messages from one particular fan across three of her social media platforms — Tiktok, Snapchat and Instagram.

Oh great, she has three platforms. (At least the last two are a bit less toxic than TikTok. But to be fair, 4chan is less bad than TikTok, so this is not saying much). Surely an adult dealt with this situation that this child had found herself in? But no.

“[She] told the New York Times that early on, she responded to the user, 18-year old Eric Rohan Justin, as she did with many fans, with general greetings.”

This was the point where I could not believe what I was reading. A 13-year old girl is being allowed to communicate with adult strangers online? Add to that the fact that we are dealing with a subset of older men who enjoy watching videos of her dancing around on TikTok. Without saying categorically that every young (or old) man who comments on her TikTok videos is malevolent, but we are, at a minimum, dealing with a subset of the population that a 13-year old girl should not be interacting with directly. (For whatever it is worth, I do harbor questions about adult men who are commenting on videos of dancing 13-year old girls on TikTok.)

In many cases, immensely dumb things do not result in proportionally dumb outcomes. This, unfortunately, was not one of those cases.

Selling Pictures With Adult Approval

Mr. Justin turned out to be a dangerous character. According to the New York Post write-up, he “managed to connect with some of [the girl’s] classmates — paying them in exchange for photos of her and her cell” The young TikTok starlet had been betrayed by her classmates – and opted to cut many of them out of her life. Surely her parents will have realized, if they had not before, that this situation was spiraling and that they needed to step in? But no.

[The girl], who rakes in thousands of dollars in sponsorship deals as an influencer, was given permission by her parents to sell Justin a few selfies that had already been shared on Snapchat.

What am I reading? Her mother and father gave a 13-year old girl permission to sell photos of herself to a creepy 18-year old stranger on the internet? They granted her permission after this freak bought her contact info from her classmates? Even if they granted permission before learning the details of his behavior to that point (assuming charitably the article’s chronology is wrong), this is still mind boggling.

The young lady, trying to talk like an adult engaged in her line of work, understandably missed the point:

‘I wasn’t sending anything of my body,’ [she] said. ‘It was just pictures of my face, which is what I assume that he was paying for. My whole thing is my pretty smile — that’s my content.’

The issue here is beyond the grasp of a child caught up in internet fame and endorsements. The point, of course, is that a 13- or 14-year old girl selling pictures of herself to a creepy weirdo online is something that the adults in her life should not allow to happen solely to increase her monthly revenue. It does not matter that the photos, in and of themselves, were not provocative (although it would have been worse if they were). This would have been the case even if he had not already displayed stalker-tendencies. Perhaps a young girl naively believed he really just loved her smile and personality (I will be charitable), but that is precisely why people who know better need to step in.

If ignorance is bliss, Mr. Justin did not allow the TikTok starlet much bliss. He “began messaging her on Venmo, requesting ‘booty pics’ and pictures of her feet in exchange for money.” (Why does a 13-year old have a Venmo account?) At that time, one would think that the young lady’s parents would have had no choice but to step in and contact the proper authorities. However, the article states only that it was the young lady herself who blocked Mr. Justin. Why, I ask, was a 13- or 14-year old girl left to deal with that freak herself? Is this something a young teenager who is closer to aging out of kindergarten than graduating college should need to do?

It was only after Mr. Justin persisted that the TikTok starlet’s father, “a retired police lieutenant,” ordered Mr. Justin to stop contacting his daughter.

A retired police lieutenant? One might think someone with that background would have been a bit quicker to act. Better late than never, I suppose.

The Epilogue

The story continues to explain how Mr. Justin’s stalker behavior escalated, yet the TikTok starlet’s parents dismissed him as not being a threat because he lived far away. (Apparently travel was a foreign concept.) Mr. Justin showed up at the family home and terrified the family by firing a shot through their door. The young lady’s father shot and killed Mr. Justin after he returned to the home on a second occasion and refused to disarm. Those who are interested can read about the situation in more detail in the New York Post article and other reports. While my focus in this article is not on the circumstances of the shooting – it does sound like the TikTok starlet’s father acted correctly and with justification in neutralizing Mr. Justin.

The Starlet’s Purported Greater Purpose

The starlet’s mother stated that she did not want to let “sick individuals” like Mr. Justin force her daughter from social media. Perhaps, at a minimum, responsible individuals could have played more of a role in her daughter’s use of social media?

But no, her mother saw a greater purpose:

Why should we allow them to stop her? Maybe she’s meant to bring awareness to this.

In my November 2020 article on children and internet sharing, I wrote the following:

Children are not means to an end of winning attention or approval for the adult.

Nicholas A. Ferrell

There, I was arguing against adults sharing content about children to improve their own social standing. The principle neatly applies out of its original context. Here, the mother is arguing that the situation her daughter went through with Mr. Justin was meant to bring notoriety to the issue of creeps on the internet stalking social media personalities. I need not speculate on the mother’s motivation here, although I do have a guess. Instead, I will stake unequivocally that this woman’s daughter was not meant to bring awareness to an issue that has been a matter of public concern for more than a quarter-century. There is nothing at all revelatory about there being low-lifes and stalkers on the internet. That, in and of itself, is one central reason why the hands off handling of the TikTok starlet’s social media endeavors defies comprehension.

Lessons Learned on Children and Social Media

It should go without saying that 13-year old children should not be posting content to TikTok. They should not even have TikTok accounts. In fact, TikTok must be banned yesterday.

But I digress.

Children and Bad Content

Most proprietary social media platforms are media for bad content. They are designed not to give users a place to call home, but rather to trap and monetize anything and everything about users. Neither rule is absolute, but it defines platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram broadly (TikTok is the extreme case-study).

There is no scenario wherein it is beneficial to a 13-year old girl to start a path toward TikTok stardom. To the extent that one could wrongly argue that the TikTok success story in the New York Post is a positive one (as the young lady is reported to view it), there are many more young men and women who try the same thing and end up receiving none of the money or anonymous internet validation (and stalking – fortunately) that we saw in the story at issue. TikTok encourages the creation of vapid, meaningless content, and the Chinese company behind TikTok is oriented toward collecting data on users and turning them into commodities for its own ends. Even in the the cases of virtuoso musicians, precocious chess grandmasters, special singers, or young athletes of rare caliber – the children face their own challenges and difficulties when their talent is recognized and subject to exploitation. Nothing of value comes from TikTok.

(I credit my colleague, Victor V. Gurbo, for bringing an issue to my attention regarding TikTok specifically: Is it not at all perverse to have 13-year old girls competing for attention with women who are using the insipid platform to pitch their pornographic Only Fans accounts?)

Children and Strangers on the Internet

Assuming my argument thus far is a losing battle, I would hope that we can at least agree that if children must devote years of their childhood to producing empty content for algorithms, they should at least not be left to interact with the cesspool that is the internet on their own. In what universe should a 13-year old girl be communicating with unknown 18-year old strangers – who just as well could be 45 – on the internet?

This issue existed when I was in high school – and I graduated from high school before the young TikTok starlet was born. My classmates largely recognized that high school students should not be conveying personally identifiable information to random weirdos online (except for the ones who did, of course). The young lady here was not even in high school.

Furthermore, who, in his or her right mind, would suggest to a girl that she sell pictures to random people on the internet – even if said people have not yet shown stalker tendencies. What in the world is going on?

Does the guy have to say “hey little girl, candy for a pic?” for some people to see the problem?

A Word About Our Sponsors

Finally, I would like a word about our sponsors. The New York Post article noted that the young lady “rakes in thousands of dollars in sponsorship deals as an influencer…” Now this point was easy to lose since the Post stuck it in the same sentence wherein we discovered that the TikTok starlet’s parents approved of her selling pictures of her face to a stalker, but we should not lose this point.

There are sponsors prowling TikTok for 13-year old girls to pitch their products? Again I ask – what in the world is going on? Do people graduate college to find jobs in the “sign dancing 13-year old TikTok girls to endorsement deals”? The scales fell from my eyes.

This is creepy and it must stop. These sponsors should be named and asked to explain how exactly they find and approach TikTok children with offers they and their parents cannot refuse. As a matter of broader concern, creepy nonsense like this serves to encourage more young men and ladies to squander their childhoods dancing for random internet people.

Final Thoughts

As I noted in my article about adults sharing content about children on the internet, the purpose of my argument is not to create an absolute rule other than that children should not be on TikTok (ironclad rule) and should not be left to communicate with unknown adults on the internet (also ironclad). I noted how I used AIM when I was in high school – which I suppose was media created for socializing, if not social media traditionally conceived (granted – AIM, like any tool could be and was also used in unhealthy ways). Tools to communicate with friends and family are all well and good, although parents should choose which tools and monitor their children’s use in a manner appropriate for the particular facts and circumstances of the child. Although I see no reason for a 13 year old to have a social media profile at all, some platforms are certainly less bad than others (TikTok, however, is worse than the others).

Separate from determining whether case A is acceptable and case B is not, let us agree to a general rule that children should be children. They should be given the foundation, guidance, and protection to learn to think and feel for themselves. Children should grow up in a small world with friends, family, school, and local hobbies rather than compete with adults and pornographers for adulation from a faceless crowd online. In an ideal case – such as the one the young lady who featured in the story I covered here had – a child should not be left to navigate the perils and pitfalls that come with notoriety on the internet.