The Afterword: TikTok leads teens to the slaughter

The podcast “BFFs,” hosted by Barstool CEO-turned-public figure Dave Portnoy and 19-year-old TikTok giant Josh Richards, is my guilty pleasure.

In the podcast, Richards, who boasts 24.5 million followers on the platform and is linked with household TikTok names Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Addison Rae, sits down with Portnoy for an inside dissection of the week in pop culture. Mostly, they are known for their expository and straightforward style and ability to get to the bottom of social media tea with transparency that puts clickbait to shame.

 Before I dive into this, I’d like to put out a disclaimer that I know my shameless devotion to TikTokers and their interpersonal lives constitutes a questionable hobby for a 21-year-old. You don’t have to tell me. That being said, I will continue to nurture my obsession under the guise of my column’s “sociopolitical analysis of pop culture.” In case anyone wants to call me a loser, that is my loophole. 

Let’s get to it.

The social media drama item on everyone’s (read: mine and the rest of the world’s 12-year-olds) mind is “BFFs” host Richards’ recent break-up with fellow TikTok star and girlfriend Nessa Barrett. The two seemed to be thick as thieves, but cracks started to show when Barrett began making music with Richards’ close friend, Jaden Hossler. Hossler’s ex-girlfriend, Mads Lewis, swiftly took to TikTok to accuse Barrett and Hossler of getting a little too close for comfort. 

On the podcast, Richards denied all rumors of intimacy between Barrett and Hossler, but it was clear the drama had taken a toll on the 19-year-old. He expressed that he and Barrett were “done for good,” his trademark toothy grin visibly twisted into a frown, and the conversation between him and Portnoy shifted to the implications of the hyper-visibility of TikTok stars. (It’s worth mentioning that Monday night after I drafted this installment, Barrett and Hossler went public with their relationship, leaving Richards looking like the village idiot. Yikes.)

Portnoy said something to the effect of the fact that Richards and his peers are regular teenagers going through regular teenage drama — but that drama is being systematically commodified for consumer culture. Their every move, decision and mishap is publicized for millions upon millions of followers to scrutinize, criticize, circulate and dissect. Social media armies have never been more ready and willing to attack at any and all indications of foul play, no matter how unfounded, and public figures have never, well, been more public than they are today. 

This got me thinking. I stared at Richards through my computer screen as he talked, and, for the first time, I didn’t see a product or a vehicle for likes, views or subscriptions. I saw a person — a child — who was really, really sad. 

We’re all familiar with the child-star-to-basket-case pipeline that includes the likes of Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Demi Lovato and Lindsay Lohan. It’s no hot take that growing up in the public eye can beget serious, irreversible problems that nothing and no one are really working to circumvent. In fact, I wrote about this endemic in a recent installment.

But how about growing up in the public eye in 2021, at the peak of TikTok’s popularity and social media fanaticism? Given that adolescence is a time period during which peer influence and socialization are key predictors of adaptive development and that TikTok-famous teens are essentially adult baby Internet punching bags, I don’t think it’s crazy to say that these kids are going to need serious therapy a few years down the line. 

Beyond the unprecedented omnipotence of social media lies the reality that the entertainment industry, and by extension TikTok, has never been so unpredictable or subject to constant change. Public figures can go from beloved to canceled, hero to zero, at the literal click of a button — look no further than the recent controversies surrounding Shane Dawson and David Dobrik for evidence. 

The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?

Point being: When it comes to young burgeoning TikTok stars, not only is their mental health a negligible consideration exploited by anonymous Internet swaths, but the nature of their success is also completely elusive and unreliable. Next week or even tomorrow, a new platform could pop on the radar that relegates TikTok’s most influential giants to the margins of invisibility. 

And let me ask you this: Who will be there to pick up the pieces for those kids if that does become the case? Their PR teams? Agents? Think again. 

Richards is arguably the brightest and most financially strategic of the TikTok giants. He is the chief strategy officer of TikTok-wannabe Triller, co-founder of talent agency TalentX Entertainment and is launching a venture capital fund under the mentorship of an ex-Goldman Sachs banker to supplement his TikTok earnings. His net worth spiked to over a million in under a year and is steadily growing. 

But who says Richards or his peers, come time to put their TikTok days behind them and settle down, will be in any state to reap the fruits of their labor? These are young kids with vulnerable, impressionable brains. To think that they have any chance of escaping the social media spotlight mentally unscathed is more than naive — it’s negligent. 

TikTok giants are but lambs being led to the slaughter — and guess what? We’re the owners of the slaughterhouse. 

Rachel McKenzie is a senior writing about pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword,” typically runs every other Wednesday.