From Tumblr to TikTok: a Reckoning with Toxic Trends

Picture this, it’s 2014, and you’ve just turned thirteen. You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of teen YouTuber content. You binge-watch Bethany Mota and Meredith Foster when their usernames were still Macbarbie07 and StilaBabe09, and are convinced that a can of chalkboard paint and a hoard of EOS lip balms would solve all your pre-teen problems.


Content Warning: Mentioning of Serial Killers, Rape, Paedophilia, Self-Harm, and Eating Disorders


The Origins of Discontent

Picture this, it’s 2014, and you’ve just turned thirteen. You’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of teen YouTuber content. You binge-watch Bethany Mota and Meredith Foster when their usernames were still Macbarbie07 and StilaBabe09, and are convinced that a can of chalkboard paint and a hoard of EOS lip balms would solve all your pre-teen problems. Jack and Finn Harries are the objects of every girl's affection, and you’re caught in the crosshairs of a raging battle between One Direction and Taylor Swift fans at school. Your most prized possession is a gel ink pen set from Smiggle, and you still can’t figure out how to use a Rainbow Loom. Life’s good.

At school, one of the resident “cool girls” in your class tells you about some guy named Tate Langdon. Confused about who this man is, she tells you to “look him up on Tumblr”. It turns out Tate is one of the main protagonists of the first season of the show American Horror Story. Upon further inspection, you discover that Tumblr is the answer to all your nerdy and celebrity-oriented pre-teen dreams. It has fandoms upon fandoms, with caffeine and hormone-fuelled users spam-posting whatever gif, fanart, or fanfiction they could produce. Little do you know things would go downhill from there.

That is the story of how I discovered Tumblr, which would end up shaping a large part of my friends’ and my own early teen personality. Coming from a conservative Catholic school in Southeast Asia, it’s fair to say that my friends and I were pretty sheltered at that time. You can’t imagine how alluring early 2010s YouTube and Tumblr were for us. But the allure was a slippery slope and curiosity definitely killed the cat. For every positive thing we encountered online, it was quickly met by a negative, with the glorification of murderers, eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse and even paedophilia running rife through these platforms during the 2010s.

Thanks to algorithms and the instant gratification of social media platforms, users can quickly be absorbed into their own digital bubble, which is carefully curated to hook you into a world that is a far cry from the reality of the offline world. Today, it seems this cycle continues at a more intense and accelerated pace, thanks to TikTok’s elusive algorithm and the ever-expanding web of other platforms at our fingertips. The question is, can we prevent young people from being exposed to troubling content? Or are doomed to repeat our mistakes?

The Problem

On social media, trend cycles come and go at lightning speed; therefore, it was only a matter of time before 2014 trends would be due for a comeback. While not surprising, I was startled by the intensity and magnitude of their return. No longer contained within the Tumblr-sphere, problematic and dangerous trends have made it to much larger platforms, most notably TikTok.

For example, during my Tumblr days, the American Horror Story pipeline led me to learn how the show wasn’t entirely fictional and that many of the show's atrocious characters or plotlines were based on reality. This, in turn, led the algorithm to suggest posts and blogs about true crime. Most were informative and generally respectful, but every so often, you’d come across a user reblogging images of serial killers and rapists with flower crowns on their heads, romanticising them in the belief that if only they met them during their spree’s that they “could change them”, and sparing absolutely no respect or sympathy for the victims and their families.

It’s no secret that Tumblr also fuelled eating disorders, with the images splattered across the website of Victoria’s Secret models and waifish indie girls sending a clear message about what particular body type was beautiful. I recall myself and others looking up ways to get a thigh gap or seeing if our torsos could be hidden behind an A4 piece of paper. Some girls even actively tried to get food poisoning so they could get sick and throw up all the unwanted weight. Tags such as “ProAna”, “Fitspiration”, and “Thinspiration” were so popular that the website tried to counter it by putting a content warning before giving you the option of searching for something else. Still, it was like trying to take shelter from a storm, but leaving all the windows open.

Finally, any critique of 2010s Tumblr wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Lolita. Here, I use Lolita as a catch-all word to describe the romanticisation of age-gap relationships where one of the partners cannot or has not fully consented. You would have been hard-pressed not to come across a photo or gif set of young Dominique Swain as Lolita lounging in a playsuit with Lana Del Rey lyrics overlaid on top of it. Obvious red flags were tinted green by justifications of control, possessiveness, and jealousy being signs of “how much they care”. The glorification of abusive relationships was not especially overt, but if you scrolled through and interacted with enough suggestive posts, it was easy to read between the lines and understand the truth.

As social media sites, such as TikTok, continue to exponentially grow in users and uploads, it’s impossible to meditate and content review everything. But with younger and younger children on the sites, it’s worrisome to think that their perceptions of the world and those around them are being shaped by the millions of strangers and corporations whose primary motivations are more often than not to either go viral by whatever means necessary, make a profit, or sow discontent. The re-emergence of problematic trends on a massive scale is bound to have the same—if not worse—consequences as the Tumblr days.

For instance, “Lolita” has been replaced with “Coquette”, and “Fitspiration” with “That Girl”. Most troublingly, the recent rise in true crime podcasts and docuseries has furthered the glamorisation and coddling of abusers. Notably, images on Tumblr of serial killers wearing flower crowns have found their equivalent on TikTok in the form of full-on thirst videos of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Additionally, casting attractive actors as real-life serial killers has become a topic of debate on whether or not it romanticises and sympathises with the abuser and if it disrespects the victims and their families. Examples include Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Ross Lynch and Evan Peters as Jeffrey Dahmer. In the wake of the recent Netflix show Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, I’ve stumbled across videos of people affectionately calling a mass murderer “Jeff <3” or making fancams of Evans as Dahmer. In Halloween's wake, the families and friends of Dahmer’s victims are beseeching people not to dress up as the killer or any other abuser during the holiday. The common excuse is that since it's happening online or within the fandoms of a piece of fiction, the abuse and lack of respect are invalid criticisms or should not be taken seriously. It’s not edgy. It’s cruel and exploitative.

The Reckoning

While there is no denying that social media and the internet can bring about social change and be a force for good at an unprecedented scale, navigating the blessed tool of knowledge shouldn’t come at the expense of a person’s physical and mental well-being. So how can we stop the carousel of toxic trends from coming around again?

Now that I am twenty-one and a university student, I’d like to claim that my media literacy has improved and that I’m less impressionable than my thirteen-year-old self. But I’d be lying if I said I haven't fallen victim to liking or saving content that echoes my Tumblr past. I am also guilty of not heeding my own advice, and the habit of doom-scrolling is hard to kick.

I’d like to have a straightforward solution to this problem. However, given that these trends keep cycling around, it appears that there isn’t one just yet. So until then, I can only suggest that there be increased awareness and emphasis on media literacy in schools and community centres. In an ideal world, platforms would also further examine the content allowed on their sites, provide the proper training and support to those employed to review possibly offensive material, and stop tolerating harmful and hateful content that runs rampant on many social media platforms.

Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but for the sake of my young Gen Z counterparts and the succeeding generations of curious children seeking answers and validation online, I can only hope that the internet can become a less problematic place.

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