K.S., a 14-year-old girl The Daily Beast is identifying by her initials to protect her privacy, was 12 years old when she first downloaded TikTok, a video app all her friends seemed to be newly hooked on. It was early 2020, and once COVID-19 hit, K.S. found herself with little to do besides engage as best she could with remote learning—“Remote school is a joke,” she told The Daily Beast—and spend her free time scrolling through the app.
K.S. is a sports-obsessed kid who thrived playing soccer and basketball, but as her time on TikTok increased, her demeanor changed, says her mother, who we’re calling K.R.
“She’s always been a high-achieving, well-adjusted, independent child,” K.R. told The Daily Beast. “I would always joke and call her my princess warrior. I started to notice a change in her behavior around the fall of 2021, when I saw a little bit of a change in her eating habits. She was asking for some food items that would really be used in more of a medically supervised diet.
“I would talk to my mom on the phone,” K.R. continued. “I’d say, ‘Hey, [K.S.] is asking for X, Y, and Z. And my mom would say, ‘Well, that’s a Weight Watcher’s item.’”
K.R. didn’t know it yet, but her daughter was developing a dangerous eating disorder that would eventually require her to be hospitalized with a resting heart rate of 40 to 44 beats per minute (the normal range for her age group is between 60 to 100), and that led to an ongoing, painstaking recovery process.
K.S. and her parents are now plaintiffs in a personal injury lawsuit filed against TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, last July in Los Angeles. It’s one of two similar suits being handled by the Social Media Victims Law Center, which alleges that the app is directly responsible for causing children’s eating disorders and the decline of their mental health.
The plaintiffs in the second suit, filed on behalf of 14-year-old A.L. and her parents on Feb. 3 in Oakland, California, declined to speak to The Daily Beast. A.L. downloaded TikTok when she was 12, was “groomed” to develop an eating disorder by the app, and eventually weighed in at only 64 pounds, the lawsuit alleges.
TikTok did not respond to The Daily Beast’s multiple requests for comment.
These legal actions are among the first in a growing wave of lawsuits filed against TikTok tied to the platform’s alleged responsibility for teen addiction, grievous harm, and even death. In 2022, a judge dismissed a lawsuit accusing TikTok of responsibility for causing the death of a 10-year-old girl who attempted the “Blackout Challenge,” a TikTok trend that prompts people to choke themselves until they lose consciousness.
K.S. didn’t seek out extreme weight loss videos, but was fed that content on her account’s “For You” page based on her age, gender, and topics she’d searched for previously, the lawsuit alleges.
“A kid that’s interested in exercise will look at an exercise video and get the information they need and move on,” Matthew Bergman, founding attorney of the SMVLC, told The Daily Beast. “That serves the kids’ needs, but that doesn’t serve TikTok’s needs, which is to enhance their engagement. So in order to keep that kid online after she learned what she needed to know about exercise, they will show the kid stuff that is more and more extreme, and in both of these cases, that led to anorexic content.
“Remember that these are also children, and that this is going on during their pubescent years, when they’re particularly vulnerable,” Bergman added.
K.S. says she had TikTok for about a year before weight loss content started “flooding” her feed. She became increasingly obsessed with videos challenging viewers to consume 500 calories or less per day, as well as “What I Eat in a Day” videos, in which users show off everything they purport to consume on a given day.
“I hold myself to a really high standard, and so that was kind of one of the forces, too. Like, I need to be better, I need to be thinner, that stuff,” K.S. told The Daily Beast. “Seeing those images online just kind of reassured me, like, ‘OK, you can’t eat these foods. You have to be this thin. You can’t eat before noon. You can’t eat after five. These foods are bad for you.’ One time it even told me strawberries were something you couldn’t eat.”
A.L. was similarly “targeted” by the app, according to the lawsuit filed last week on her behalf.
“A.L. had always enjoyed helping her mother prepare meals, and finding new recipes to make with her mom, which is why she began searching for recipes on TikTok,” the suit alleges. “Within a matter of weeks, if not days, TikTok’s design and programming of its product identified and targeted A.L., grooming her both to engage in excessive and harmful use of the TikTok product and in how to have an eating disorder.”
Multiple investigations have documented the immense volume of extreme dieting content being consumed by teens on TikTok. In response to a 2021 Washington Post article that cites the “corpse bride diet,” TikTok promised to adjust its recommendation algorithm so users wouldn’t see as much repeat content.
But significant change isn’t happening fast enough, Julie Millican, vice president of the media watchdog group Media Matters for America, told The Daily Beast.
“TikTok says they have policies in place to try to curb and eliminate content that promotes or glorifies eating disorders and weight loss associated with dangerous behaviors,” Millican said. “The problem is, they’re really not good at moderating their own content, and users tend to be able to easily circumvent whatever barriers they’ve put in place.”
Media Matters has found many extreme dieting videos that specifically target children. “We found this content promoting extremely calorie-restrictive diets that are using cartoon characters like Hello Kitty” and idealized K-pop stars, Millican said.
“We know that rice cakes are a food product that’s extremely popular with people who are struggling with anorexia,” Millican added. “We found that even just starting to search TikTok with the word ‘rice,’ it auto-filled ‘rice cake’ without even trying, and then led to that type of content.”
Like a pernicious virus, extreme weight loss content uploaded on TikTok mutates and evolves to circumvent the platform’s algorithmic efforts to stamp it out. When one diet name or search term is banned, users commonly replace letters with numbers to trick the platform, Millican said.
In January, a Media Matters investigation also found that Kilo Group, TikTok’s largest weight loss advertiser, spent $4.3 million on ads on the platform between Nov. 1, 2022, and Jan. 7, 2023. The majority of this money is spent on promoting Beyond Body and ColonBroom, two companies that promote speedy and misleading weight-shedding methods, the investigation found.
Decades of research have shown that eating disorder sufferers have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Only 60 percent of patients make a full recovery, and only one in 10 people with an eating disorder seek and receive treatment.
As her illness progressed, K.S. started to feel constantly exhausted; her fingers or toes would occasionally go numb and she was always cold. Her hair started to fall out and sometimes she felt dizzy enough to faint.
When K.S. was picked up from school in January 2022 to be hospitalized and undergo an intensive 16-day re-feeding program, she assumed her family was surprising her with a trip to Florida.
“We had been talking about how we’d want to go on a vacation because I was so cold,” she told The Daily Beast.
“What happened when you got to the car?” her mother prompted. “What did you see?”
“I saw there was only one bag packed,” K.S. said. “It was really rough.”
“We went back and forth—do we tell her sibling what’s going on?” K.R. said. “My husband and I looked at each other and we were like, there’s a possibility she could die, and he should have the opportunity to say goodbye to her. That was a really tough moment.”
One year later, every meal K.S. eats is supervised by her parents, and the family is helped by a team of professionals that includes a dietician, a pediatrician, a counselor, and meetings from a hospital specialist. K.S. was absent from school for two and a half months, and not all of the treatments she’s currently receiving are covered by the family’s insurance, K.R. told The Daily Beast.
But K.S. is alive, gradually recovering, and looking forward to possibly playing varsity soccer in the spring.
“It definitely makes a real difference not having to hide everything and feel so alone sometimes,” K.S. said. “Nobody knew what was going on and I was the one with all the voices in my head. Being able to tell my parents, and them saying, ‘We love you and we’re gonna keep supporting you,’ has been so amazing.”
“Our thing is kinda like one day at a time,” she added. “It’s one day, it’s one meal at a time. It’s one bite at a time. We’re just gonna make it through this and, like, you got this.”