NEW DELHI — A ban on new TikTok users in India over fears that the app was exposing children to porn and sexual predators will do little to address the country’s crisis of child sexual abuse, while an abuse epidemic continues IRL.
The Chinese-owned video-sharing app, hugely popular with teens in the US and the world over, was pulled from the Google and Apple stores by the Indian government late on Tuesday, but that leaves 120 million people in India who have already downloaded it free to use the app as normal.
Before the ban came into effect BuzzFeed News found material that violates the app’s own guidelines, including videos of children set to sexualized songs and lyrics, videos of semi-clothed children, children performing violent acts on each other, and adults enacting violent situations with children and animals. TikTok itself purged 6 million videos earlier this week.
This material, while disturbing, is also available on other social media platforms and Indian TV. What makes the ban on TikTok particularly charged is the app’s massive following in India — TikTok users in India account for a quarter of its total global downloads, making it the app’s largest market. BuzzFeed News has spoken to some of the app’s most avid creators for an insight into the app’s popularity, and to understand why TikTok videos are an entire cultural moment in India.
The problematic videos that remain on the app despite the purge of offensive material can be found by using hashtags like “#cutebabies” (which returns almost 700 million videos), “#desikids,” “#cuteIndianbabies,” or by simply following the algorithm of trending hashtags.
But these videos barely scratch the surface of India’s crisis of child sexual abuse, and point to the difficulty of tackling real-world problems with a digital ban. According to the latest official statistics, a child is abused every four hours. Banning TikTok is not going to solve that problem.
TikTok’s popularity in India raises questions about what happens when the so-called “next billion” — a whole new strata of Indians, who own cheap smartphones with massive data plans — starts using the internet, with little to no digital literacy or awareness of personal rights. And at a time when many in the West are struggling to contain the deeply invasive ways in which social media affects the rights of women and children, TikTok’s appeal adds a new dimension to the debate.
Even before the ban came in TikTok was in crisis-management mode. TikTok wants to manage not only its public reputation, but also what is said about the company by its most prominent creators. In almost every phone conversation that BuzzFeed News had with TikTok’s content creators ahead of the ban, its PR company, Allison+Partners, insisted on vetting questions beforehand and being present on the call.
Likewise, Indian courts and the government have been in an increasing state of panic, culminating in this week’s ban. Ministers had even suggested TikTok was a Chinese ploy to gain access to Indian data, while judges have said they are sick of children wasting time and are worried about strangers exploiting them on TikTok.
The ban on TikTok is not the first time India has tried to address a crisis of sexual violence with an internet ban. Last year the government banned hundreds of porn sites, arguing it would help tackle the country’s epidemic of sexual assaults on women.
TikTok has also already run into serious trouble in other countries. In March, ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, was fined $5.7 million for violating child privacy laws in the US. The same month, a BBC investigation into TikTok in the UK found hundreds of inappropriate comments, posted on videos of children performing otherwise seemingly innocent videos.
On a call with BuzzFeed News, TikTok’s international communication lead, Belle Baldoza, revealed that the company hoped to replicate what happened in Indonesia, where the app was banned for a week in July last year. Since then, the company has been working with the Indonesian government to tighten security on it’s app and make sure all content is culturally appropriate.
ByteDance said it would challenge the court’s order. Sumedhas Rajgopal, TikTok’s entertainment and strategy lead in India, told BuzzFeed News that for now, it was “business as usual,” with celebrities and regular app users uploading new videos every minute despite the ban. “Safety has to be a community effort, we trust our creators to flag content that makes them uncomfortable, and out content moderators to remove it.”
Like all social media, TikTok is designed to be addictive. When you open the app, your phone’s entire screen displays a seemingly endless scroll of scenes — weird, earworm-y and mesmerizing videos — of people lip-synching, miming, dancing, or performing scenes from movies.
And while sites like Facebook and Instagram are used by non-English speakers in India, if you speak one of the country’s many regional languages the chances of going viral are far higher on TikTok. TikTok’s easy interface, which works on the cheapest of phones, is perfect for people who live in the country’s smaller cities, towns, and villages.
Despite India’s unemployment crisis, optimistic, Bollywood-obsessed young people still believe in the dream that, with enough talent and determination, with the right audition or dance moves, anyone can beat the odds. Many users of TikTok are the same Indians who show up on TV dance contests, talent hunts, and comedy shows, hoping that a casting agent finds their profile, or that the internet does its magic and one day makes them go viral.
TikTok is also incredibly egalitarian, ideal for a country in which millions of people live in poverty. While TikTok’s creators act, dance, and lip-synch their hearts out in the hope that the content they make will eclipse their backgrounds and their lack of polish, class markers are visible in nearly every video: cracking plaster on exposed brick walls, women with their heads covered, food cooking on fires instead of kitchen appliances, and clothes hanging off clothes lines inside bedrooms that double up as store rooms and kitchens.
This is what the new, new internet looks like — it lacks the filters and artifice of Instagram and the political engagement and armies of trolls on Twitter, and there is no fake new crisis like on Facebook.
Amid a culture struggling with masculinity and violence, TikTok users can find the Indian subgenre of boys who cry passionately. The country’s most marginalized community — the Dalits — can be seen performing joyous, victorious dances praising the man who wrote the Indian constitution. Young girls whose lives are policed in a million different ways strut with complete abandon at home. Couples living in cramped, tiny homes with parents, children, cousins, and grandparents steal moments of intimacy making videos of themselves performing romantic duets.
In the hills of North India, Mujeeb Khan, a 25-year old musician, said he had hoped to use TikTok to get noticed and sign a deal with a record label, and take himself to New Delhi or Mumbai. That never happened, but he did find fame of sorts. TikTok’s algorithm taught him what the internet really wanted — cute kids.
Khan’s first #cutebaby video featured his 5-month-old niece Amyrah, the two of them dancing a sweet two-step to a Bollywood song. Within minutes of posting it last year, the video had received thousands of views. In two days, the figure had passed 1 million.
“I knew something special was happening then,” said Khan in a phone interview, while two of TikTok’s PR agents listened in. “Amyrah is lucky for me.”
Around 80% of the videos Khan shares feature his niece — the others simply don’t do as well, he said — but he doesn’t mind. “I try to come up with scenarios that will make her laugh or smile, but she usually does that whenever she sees a phone or a mirror now.”
“Sometimes her parents stand behind the camera,” he said. “They love the fact that she’s already famous, my sister dresses her up for our TikTok videos, and her husband loves staying up all night to read the comments.”
But the fact that the app is liberating to so many people allows a darker side of TikTok to thrive. While TikTok’s management speaks regularly to its most popular creators, BuzzFeed News found dozens of other accounts, many with only a few hundred followers, that had uploaded disturbing content featuring children. Some of these videos included a toddler dancing in a towel that keeps slipping off, a young boy being punished while the camera zooms into his crotch, a child pretending to be an adult man beating his wife, who is played by his mother, a bearded man tickling an infant’s mouth with his face, and children filmed without their knowledge in playgrounds.
The internet loves cute content, and videos and pictures featuring children perform well on all social media including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These companies also have serious problems with sexualized and abusive content, and have hired teams of moderators, while TikTok has been criticized for not taking the problem seriously enough, leading to the ban in India and action in other countries.
And while many of the videos on TikTok seen by BuzzFeed News are alarming to watch without any context, they are often no different from the dozens of reality shows on Indian TV, where children gyrate seductively, wear makeup, and crack bawdy jokes for panels of judges to reward them.
BuzzFeed News showed around a dozen of the more disturbing TikTok clips it had found to Vidya Reddy — the founder of Tulir, an organization that works on child sexual abuse in India, and a trusted content flagger for YouTube — to determine whether they should be removed. Reddy’s answer says a lot about the complexities of dealing with content online. She said a lot would depend on who made the videos, and what their intent was, which is often almost impossible to answer online.
Reddy doesn’t believe that banning apps and websites will do anything to address the real-world problem of sexual violence in India. “It is 100% a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” she said.
“Twenty-thousand teenage girls have reported pregnancies ... in Chennai [a state in South India] between December and March. Can you imagine that number? Now tell me, how is banning an app going to keep these girls safe,” she said in a phone interview. According to Reddy, banning TikTok is “ludicrous.”
Reddy said it also shows how little India’s lawmakers, judiciary, and police — which are dominated by older men — understand about the modern world. “There is a complete disconnect between the way the government, police officers, and courts think about the internet and the way young Indians use it,” she said.
She compared it to the time in 2015 when the Indian government decided to ban porn sites following a spate of violent sexual assaults. Reddy was a member of a consultation committee where members of parliament in the state of Tamil Nadu spoke to NGOs about online porn. “It was the most hilarious thing ever,” she said. “One minister actually suggested printing a physical directory of porn websites, so we could all know which sites not to visit.”
Ultimately, in October last year, India banned around 827 websites, most of which Reddy said were adult escort sites. Most porn sites are still easily accessible in the country.
“The fact we need to understand is that there is no distinction between the offline and virtual selves of children anymore,” she said. “Kids love seeing themselves on screens, parents and families love recording them. The internet has completely changed all existing rules of romance, social relationships and the way people think and behave. We live in a world where 9-year-olds run their own YouTube channels and their parents, who live in the same house, have absolutely no idea about it.”
Zohar Levkovitz, CEO of AntiToxin, an internet safety startup, told BuzzFeed News that the ease of access to disturbing content on TikTok required a dual approach: “First, ‘Duty of Car’ regulation needs to be implemented to hold platforms accountable and ensure they can't abdicate responsibility. Second, the platforms have to develop or integrate third-party solutions such as video age analysis, content-sharing pattern analysi,s and other technologies that detect and hinder the spread of toxic behavior, so such content doesn't become fodder for predatory behavior.”
Over email, Levkovitz added that TikTok needed to handle this societal epidemic with urgency, “especially with the pervasive spread of content with children - which is only going to worsen as social platforms continue to grow in scale.”
In India, children have traditionally been treated by their families as creatures with no agency or autonomy. The rapid spread of easy access to the internet has raised all kinds of new questions. On the one hand, social media gives them a lot of control, while also making them vulnerable to adults who can easily contact them online.
Platforms like TikTok also allow adults to post endless videos of children — sometimes their own, sometimes complete strangers — without their consent. This is a problem around the world, where posting a cute video of a burbling baby could also been seen as a violation of its privacy. All photographs shared on social media platforms, no matter what privacy settings you use, are owned by the website, whether it’s Facebook or TikTok. Children’s photographs shared in good faith have been known to wind up on pornographic sites.
Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, told BuzzFeed News she was baffled by how TikTok had become the focus of the Indian government’s concerns, as if other social media platforms were not themselves deeply problematic.
“My gut reaction is always to be careful when children are used as an excuse for censorship, simply because emotions often flare (too) high,” she said via Twitter DM.
In fact, she argued that TikTok creators have often used it to make social commentaries that sets the platform apart. “The scale of abuse that many of us have gotten so used to on a platform like Twitter simply doesn’t seem to exist on TikTok — at least not yet,” Kovacs said. “Research from Sri Lanka, news reports from India, as well as our own engagements with people in rural Jharkhand (in a workshop) also indicate that TikTok is used for all kinds of social critique — be it of gender, class differences, or other inequalities, often in lighthearted ways. I am not sure what is driving these differences, but surely these issues also need to be taken into account when assessing the value of the platform?”
For parents on TikTok, the app has become the place for showing off their children, not just for the occasional visiting relative, but for an entire breathless fanbase online. Particularly for women who are not in employment and taking care of young children, performing for an audience has given them a sense of identity too.
Before she got married, Moni Kundu, a 35-year-old mother of one from Jodhpur, a city in West India, had a brief love affair with theater in college. She gave that all up when she settled down, but TikTok was the perfect place for her experiment making short videos, which she would initially only shared with her friends and family over WhatsApp.
“No one ever knew that I could act,” she said, laughing as she recalled their first reactions. “But my family was so encouraging, I finally changed my TikTok profile to public and began uploading videos.”
Kundu had first discovered TikTok when she was depressed over her father’s poor health. Waiting outside his hospital room, she would sit glued to her phone — watching strangers sing, dance, cry, and act in the 15-second clips, never failed to make her feel better. She soon wanted to give it a go herself. Now, Kundu, her husband, and their son are one of India’s most popular TikTok families.
“When my husband comes home early from work, all three of us make videos together,” Kundu told BuzzFeed News over the phone. “My son Paramvir barely asks for his video games anymore.”
As the family’s presence on the app has grown — they have more than 850,000 followers and almost 18 million “hearts” and spend every Sunday live-streaming videos from their home to talk to their fans — Paramvir’s parents have a simple set of rules for keeping the 5-year-old safe: He’s never allowed to go online alone, he doesn’t have his own device. Paramvir’s father, a bank employee who opted not to be named in this piece for fear of losing his government job, added a few more restrictions: Don’t shoot Paramvir in his school uniform or in front of street signs that might give away the family’s address or location, and don’t use Paramvir’s full name so that he can’t be traced from his school records.
Paramvir is only allowed to make TikTok videos after he’s eaten his lunch, taken a nap, and finished his homework. But otherwise, Kundu said, the app was a great place for family fun.
“The best part is when people tell me our videos help them through a bad phase,” Kundu said. “That’s when I feel like I’m giving back to the community.”
Kundu no longer simply wants go viral — she wants to remind India what clean, wholesome family fun looks like. She’s spent hours on the app studying what content does well and has learned how to edit videos and how to develop an audience. “I get calls from old schoolmates, people I knew in other towns and cities, strangers, it’s incredible,” she said. “It finally feels like I am someone too.”
For Swati Sharma, a 25-year-old housewife from Jharkhand in East India, TikTok is also a source of income. Every day, she transforms into Queen Swati for the app, lip-synching to Bollywood songs, dancing, and re-creating scenes for her 2 million devoted fans.
Her videos, like most Indian TikTok videos, are similar to Indian reality contests and comedy shows. Performers make exaggerated sounds and faces, janky audio toots and tings, and a laugh track tells you every time a punchline is delivered. But the format is perfect for Sharma and her 4-year-old son, Shaurya, who frequently plays the role of an adult man in Sharma’s videos.
Despite the fact that TikTok has recently introduced an option that lets users filter out abusive comments, Sharma, prefers to read all the comments she receives. “I’m the kind of person that just needs to know what people are saying about me and my family,” she said in a phone interview. Sharma said the negative comments would affect her initially, “A lot of friends advised me to grow a thicker skin. Now I just try to take it in my stride and make better, more positive videos.”
Sharma said she would not let a few mean comments drive her from the app, because TikTok helped her regain her confidence after she’d quit her job to have a baby.
“I started making small videos for entertainment and I’d post anything back then, I had no sense of content,” she said. “But as I began to get more likes and comments, I started putting more effort into videos and making original content.”
As Sharma's popularity has grown, she said she’s begun to be recognized in malls and streets in Jharkhand, getting brand endorsements and calls to appear on reality TV shows. Just a few years ago a woman like Sharma would have little more to look forward to than a life of domesticated drudgery. Now she’s earning up to $800 every month, a life-changing amount, which she can make without ever leaving her home. For many women in India, what could be better? ●
At Vidya Reddy’s request, this story has been updated to include more information about her interactions with the committee in Tamil Nadu that discussed online porn, as well as her statement about the teenage girls found to be pregnant in Chennai.
The name of the Internet Democracy Project was misstated in an earlier version of this post.
Sumedhas Rajgopal's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.