A TikTok-ing Time Bomb: How Hollywood is Marketing Adult Content to Kids

Written by PTC | Published November 14, 2022

LOS ANGELES (November 14, 2022) – In a new report, A TikTok-ing Time Bomb, the Parents Television and Media Council (PTC) revealed that Hollywood is marketing teen-targeted TV shows with explicit adult content to young teens through social media sites popular with 13-17-year-olds.

The PTC reviewed TikTok and Instagram to see how these TV-MA-rated programs were being marketed to teens: Euphoria, 13 Reasons Why, Big Mouth, A Teacher, pen15, Sex Education, Squid Game, Cuties, and Panic.

“Our report found that Hollywood is doing an end-run around parents by marketing sexually explicit teen-targeted, yet TV-MA-rated, content directly to children and teens on TikTok and Instagram,” said PTC President Tim Winter.

“The TV-MA rating should, in theory, serve as a gatekeeper for children seeking to learn more about a program. But social media gives children great access into these shows, no matter whether their families subscribe to a particular streaming platform. And Hollywood is using that back door to do just that,” said Winter.

Through a 13-year-old account on both TikTok and Instagram, the PTC found:

  • HBO appears to be heavily invested in using TikTok and Instagram as a marketing platform for its original series. Unlike other titles the PTC looked at for this analysis, the “#euphoria” hashtag alone took users to a landing page that seems to carry the network’s branding. On Instagram, the “Euphoria” official page has 7.8 million followers, while 60+ users have their own “Euphoria” fan pages; and the “Euphoria” tag was used on over 3.7 million posts. On TikTok, the hashtag “euphoria” had amassed nearly 50 billion views as of August 2022.
  • Big Mouth’s Official TikTok account has 36.5k followers and the hashtag “#bigmouthnetflix” has 241.5 million views, an additional 44 hashtags tied to the program add up to millions of additional views.
  • With 676.5 million views on TikTok for the hashtag, “sexeducationnetflix,” there is no doubt that the teens on TikTok are familiar with this Netflix MA-rated series. The official Instagram account also number 4 million followers.
  • Hulu’s provocatively named, teen-targeted series, “pen15,” appears to have a larger following on TikTok than on Instagram, where the official page claims only 106k followers. But a search for “#pen15hulu” yields 65.9 million views.
  • Netflix’s Squid Game’s global success in the fall of 2021 can be largely, if not entirely attributed to social media and word-of-mouth. As of this writing, the hashtag #SquidGame had garnered 76.8 billion views on TikTok. By late October 2021, worldwide, Squid Game had received more than 12 million mentions across social media platforms and a reach of more than 36 trillion. The viral marketing of Squid Game even trickled down to younger audiences through Roblox, Minecraft, and YouTube – sparking interest in the series among viewers too young to handle the intensely violent content.

“Hollywood and Big Tech need to stop the practice of reaching underage audiences on social media with explicit content. We are calling on the Federal Trade Commission to reopen investigations into the entertainment industry’s use of social media platforms as a marketing tool for adult-rated content. We are in the midst of a mental health crisis among youth, and change is urgently needed to stem the tide of adult content marketed to children,” Winter said.

Other children and safety advocates are alarmed at the extent to which Hollywood is marketing adult content to children and teens on social media.

"Much of what children see online, whether streaming shows, apps or games, is destroying their psyche. The very soul of childhood is compromised by corporate greed and children are dying! What more will it take? It will take all of us working together to push the boulder out of the way so that future generations can thrive,” said Jean Rogers, M.S.Ed., CPE, Director, Screen Time Action Network, Fairplay.

Joann Bogard, a parent whose son passed away after a social media challenge went wrong, and Co-Leader of the Cyberbullying and Online Safety Work Group at Fairplay, said, “We lost our young son to an online challenge that he believed was safe. We can no longer wait for these mega-corporations to self-regulate. This study is further proof that our children suffer and even die from the harmful content that they view. We need Congress to mandate safety standards to protect minors from online harms.”

Lisa Honold, Director, The Center for Online Safety, said, “Parents are being sabotaged by mature content promoted to their kids on social media. Even if kids aren't interested in mature content, social media algorithms target them and "test" what they'll watch, delivering more salacious content over time. We need national online safety standards to protect kids and stop family values from being sabotaged.”

The full report can be viewed here: https://www.parentstv.org/images/pages/Nov2022_TikTokReport.docx.pdf.

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