TikTok Misused to Target, Sexually Abuse Child Users in Japan

AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File
The icon for the video sharing TikTok app is seen on a smartphone.

The video-sharing app TikTok, which is popular among young people, has been misused to sexually abuse child users, and these types of crimes have been occurring one after another.

Many of the victims are under 13. Although the TikTok operator forbids this age group to use the app in its terms and conditions, the victims started to exchange messages with other users while their parents were unaware and fell victim to sex crimes.

■ Manipulation

“I was always searching for little girls on TikTok,” said Tatsuhiro Sawada, 34, a temporary worker from Fuchu, Tokyo, to Metropolitan Police Department investigators.

Sawada, who is currently on trial, was arrested in September last year on suspicion of forced indecency involving a fifth-grade girl, including abducting her by car. At the time of his arrest, Sawada was on probation for a suspended sentence after being convicted of raping an elementary school student.

According to the police, Sawada viewed the girl’s video on TikTok and sent her a direct message (DM) complimenting her. The girl replied because she liked his panda avatar.

Even though TikTok prohibits its use by people under 13, the girl used the app on a home tablet with her mother’s account. The mother knew that her daughter used TikTok but was not aware that she was communicating with anyone.

Sawada repeatedly sent DMs to the girl, each time saying that he wants to meet her. She felt unable to refuse and met him in person several times. When she mustered the courage to refuse his request, Sawada threatened that he would kill himself in front of her house if she would not meet him. He eventually took her to a hotel, where he allegedly committed indecent acts on her.

TikTok is operated by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., which made the service available in Japan in May 2017.

A survey of 1,500 men and women aged 13 to 69 was conducted on social media by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in January 2020. The results showed that 12.5%, or 187 people, use TikTok and about half of them are between the ages of 10 and 19.

■ Parental involvement

According to the National Police Agency, 2,082 people under 18 were involved in crimes triggered by social media in 2019. It was the largest number since 2010. Twitter users accounted for 38%, or 807 cases; himabu users accounted for 14%, or 307 cases; and Instagram users accounted for 5%, or 120 cases. Most were related to sex crimes.

Although the number of cases involving TikTok users was fewer than other social media services, ByteDance’s Japan unit had made the direct messaging system unavailable to users under 16 since April last year in response to several criminal cases.

“Compared to other social media services, TikTok has more posts showing users’ faces, which could lead to a rise in the number of victims of sex-related crimes in the future,” said Kazuo Takeuchi, an associate professor at the University of Hyogo and a specialist in student guidance study. “Parents need to regularly check to see if their children are communicating with strangers.”