This article contains references to pedophilia and suicide.
I dont think it’s a secret that I spend a lot of time on TikTok, but I’m still ashamed to admit it. It has now gotten to the point where my boyfriend has accepted that regardless of the topic we’re discussing, I’ll chime with, “that reminds me of this TikTok…”
Along with the rising popularity of TikTok have come TikTok stars. People like 16-year old Charli D’Amelio who appeared on Jimmy Fallon and DANCED WITH JLO DURING THE SUPERBOWL. Or the TikTokkers of the Hype House, a Los Angeles mansion that acts as a creative hub and home for some of TikTok’s major talent. As of this writing, some of these creators have upwards of 80 million followers on the app, and on other platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
No matter how you become famous though, the terms remain the same: there is good, bad, and oh so ugly. You can see for instance what it’s like outside of the Hype House in this video.
Those are literally children waiting outside of a house filled with adults. While their parents sit patiently in a car. Some of these people travel from other cities just to get a photo or an autograph! AHHHH!
And that’s probably one of the biggest issues that TikTok and its stars are facing right now. Over the weekend, allegations of pedophilia and grooming surfaced against three of TikTok’s most prominent stars: Benji Krol (@benjikrol), Jorge Garay (@jeyjeygardi), and Tony Lopez (@toneylopez). Respectively, they are aged, 19, 18, and 21.
Benji and Jeyjey were two of the first people I encountered when I downloaded TikTok. Their cute gay love story, padded with videos of dates, make-up, and lip-syncs made them instant hits with fans. People were obsessed. I was obsessed. I ate that sh-t up. I’ll watch a whole movie for one gay kiss I saw in a GIF on Twitter. And clearly others felt the same.
Tony Lopez is a member of The Hype House, famous for his dance videos with his brother and I guess his thirst traps? He had his own scandal a few months ago when his nudes were leaked on Twitter.
The claims against Benji, Jeyjey, and Tony were separate, but included allegations of sending nude photos and videos to minors and even trying to pressure/solicit them into sex. You can see a video about the claims against Tony here, although the original tweet accusing Benji and Jeyjey has been deleted. Both Benji and Tony have posted acknowledgements on their Twitter.
This whole thing is of course disgusting and reprehensible, especially considering the ages of everyone involved. But it also points to the quagmire that is TikTok fame. See, the issue with TikTok is that it’s a platform used by children, teenagers, and adults. And as its stars have grown enormous followings, there are now uncomfortable scenarios where people in their late teens and early 20s have a fanbase of largely children and teens. It’s basically children wielding power against other children, and like the claims suggest, that’s an easy avenue for stars with influence to take advantage of that dynamic. If grown ass celebrities can’t even use their power responsibly, what are we to say of some 20 year old whose brain hasn’t even fully developed? (This isn’t an excuse for their behaviour due to age by the way.)
I called this article “catching a case” because it’s a phrase that you’ll frequently see in the comments and descriptions of the videos on TikTok. It refers to people thirsting after a TikToker and then finding out that they’re under 18. Just the fact that such a phrase exists points to the larger issue.
What we’re seeing now is a microcosm of a story that’s unfortunately all too similar: person with power abuses it to prey on fans. The notes app is yet again called upon for its ceremonial duty of delivering sh-tty apologies. And some people cancel and others defend. We’ve been down this road before…
However, the reason I feel like this is so important to talk about is because in the celebrity world, there are systems and a culture within the ecosystem (unions, for example) that exist to supposedly address some of these issues. You can (and should) argue that they haven’t even come close to protecting people in the industry. But at least they’re there.
On platforms like YouTube and TikTok, none of these systems exist. Which means that in the social media world, people can get just as famous, but have no checks or balances. There aren’t creators or studios that can refuse to work with someone accused of sexual assault. There aren’t bodies that can investigate allegations and try to find some sort of truth and justice.
So what’s left? Because when I look at the options we have on the table, there aren’t many to choose from. TikTok isn’t really going anywhere. There’s no way to stop people from becoming famous on it. And the mix of age groups isn’t going away.
The only check available then is the court of public opinion. Last month, I wrote a piece about Cancel Culture and how, in its proper form, it can act as a tool through which people can keep celebrities accountable. It seems like this is even more critical on platforms like TikTok.
But that also means that we have to contend with the harm that might come from that. In Benji’s apology, he mentions that he had to be admitted to a hospital for a suicide attempt.
So how do we balance the need for accountability and the danger of mob mentality? I don’t really have an answer to that, but it’s a question that we need to consider more seriously as the internet continues to change rapidly and unpredictably. Maybe we should go back to when you couldn’t use the internet and the phone at the same time.
And that makes me think of those parents sitting in the car, waiting for their child to get a photo. Do their kids have the skills to be critical and wary of the people they idolize? Or even scarier, do the parents?