October 19, 2022 - 12:30pm

For years, the boundaries between social media platforms have become increasingly blurred. Instagram is full of Snapchat-style stories and TikTok-style reels; Twitter’s use of multimedia has brought it closer to Tumblr; TikTok has moved from harmless dance routines to the kind of political clickbait more commonly associated with YouTube.

Now there is another potential crossover emerging: TikTok is monetising livestreams in a similar fashion to OnlyFans. The app has just announced that it is adding a feature which will allow users to only broadcast live streams to over-18s, and that users will have to be 18 rather than 16 to start a livestream in the first place. In theory this is to stop under-18s from coming across more mature content. A spokesperson from TikTok gave the naively chaste examples of a “comedic act more suitable for adults” or “a host talking about a difficult life experience.” Let’s be clear, though: this is about revenue rather than responsibility.

TikTok’s business model is increasingly reliant on live broadcasting: in 2021, it accounted for 15% of its income, growing nearly twice as quickly as its advertising business in the previous two years. Users can purchase TikTok Coins and donate “gifts” such as “diamonds” to content creators who can then cash these out for “real” money. Yet these virtual tips can easily become exploitative. Just last week the BBC published an investigation into how Syrian families beg for donations on TikTok while the app takes 70% of the proceeds.

By allowing ‘adult-only’ livestreams, TikTok is now effectively competing with other porn streaming sites such as MyFreeCams, Camsoda, Chaturbate and, of course, OnlyFans. For all of TikTok’s grandstanding claims that it removes sexually explicit content, the truth is that current moderation methods are woefully inaccurate. An investigation by the Times released a few days ago shows how easily users evade safety features: a simple misspelling such as “seggs” rather than “sex” is enough to bypass any filters.

Many publications have written about how TikTok serves up sex to minors; it now also sells it. Average monthly searches for “Tiktok porn” have skyrocketed from roughly 60,000 in January 2020 to 391,000 in October 2021 to 923,000 in January 2022. It’s not a question, therefore, of if children will come across this: it’s when. It is estimated that a third of 8- to 17-year-olds have the online age of an adult on social media because they sign up with a false date of birth, while over half of users in the same age bracket claim to be 16. The real figure is likely to be even higher. 

Until TikTok introduces a stringent age verification policy, the idea of “adult-only” live streams is completely illusory. The success of Twitch and OnlyFans has proved that there are millions to be made by catering to cam-girls, and there is already evidence that the cost of living crisis is encouraging more and more vulnerable people to consider online sex work. 

TikTok can try to sell this new policy as a safeguarding measure. Yet the terrifying reality is that they are creating a gateway for children and teenagers to not only come across sexualised content, but monetised sexualised content. There is something deeply disturbing about the idea of a 15-year-old boy purchasing a virtual “crown” in exchange for a striptease and the algorithm pushing similarly sexual content on their “For You” homepage. Yet we continue to let these digital behemoths get away with it.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.