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Where Did All the Preteens Go?

by Pailin Bennett

Thirteen (dir. Catherine Hardwicke, 2003)

I have noticed a phenomenon over the past few years that has made me want to ask: ‘where did all the preteen girls go?’. In case you have not heard it before, a ‘preteen’ refers to a child that is just under the age of thirteen and, due to the shift in internet culture and the rise of apps such as TikTok, there has been a change in the way these young girls act and present themselves, not just online but in real life too.

Of course, this wouldn’t be an article critiquing the younger generation if it didn’t criticize social media. Social media was probably at its peak during my preteen years. With Instagram, Snapchat and being used by the majority of people at the time, there was a fresh feeling to these apps. Whether it was swiping through the many filters offered by Instagram and Snapchat (the dog filter and the rainbow vomit filter brings back many memories) or trying to perfect your phone shake for your video, social media just felt simpler. is well known amongst people my age for being the precursor to Tiktok and in 2016 when it first showed up on our phones, there was a kind of boycott. It was deemed cringey to use Tiktok until late 2019 when the viral dances and trends made it more mainstream. Everything that is trending now has probably emerged from a viral Tiktok. From clothes, to hair colour, and even mental illnesses – it is no wonder that younger children have completely skipped the rite of passage that is ‘The Awkward Phase’. Unlike, which embodied said phase, TikTok has apparently encouraged it to be removed completely.

Young girls on Tiktok are often seen making videos using or wearing skincare products, makeup and clothes that are obviously not created for their age range. One example of this is the ‘preppy’ aesthetic and its overuse of the Drunk Elephant skincare brand. Some stores in America had to stop giving out testers for these products because of the number of children coming in and mixing them together to make ‘aesthetic videos’. Penelope Disick, an 8-year-old who is part of the Kardashian/Jenner family, is known on TikTok for her ‘preppy aesthetic’ skincare videos. In these videos she uses various expensive products, some of which include Retinol and other anti-aging products, none of which are catered towards her age range. The virality of these videos increases the likelihood that other young girls make copycat videos and perhaps even unconsciously instill a need to look young and perfect early on. This problem has become more prevalent in recent months as Tiktokers seem to be pushing a rhetoric that encourages people to fear wrinkles, smile lines and any other sorts of miniscule imperfections in the skin.

Of course, there is no issue with wanting to look young. The real problems only arises when people are obsessively applying products such as Retinol in order to counteract the effects of ageing, with platforms like Tiktok ultimately pushing this narrative on young and impressionable people. Even if these Tiktoks were targeted at an appropriate age range, why can’t we let wrinkles and smile lines exist? Are they not a sign of a fulfilled and long life? I have seen countless videos of people saying that ‘you must start using SPF early or you will be wrinkled before you’re 40’, and yes I do apply SPF everyday, don’t get me wrong here, but young people, especially girls shouldn’t be scared of ageing. I read an article from ‘The Guardian’ on ageing recently which stated that:

being told you look younger than you actually are is still a form of flattery, an odd construct of a compliment suggesting that we are, happily, not what we appear to be. The value society places on women’s age has led us to feel shame about the most human of things – getting old. Age is a feminist issue, in the same way that gender, race, class, ability and sexual orientation are.

This important issue is flipped completely with the virality of ‘thirst traps’ from young girls who appear older than they are through makeup. It’s unsettling to see a video of a girl online dressing the same way you would or wearing the same things you would but then discovering that they are almost half your age.

Shows such as ‘Euphoria’, which is catered towards an over-18 audience, have definitely influenced young people around the world. It follows the story of a recovering drug addict Rue Bennett who is played by Zendaya, an actor very well known for her roles on Disney Channel prior to ‘Euphoria’. Of course, it is impossible to regulate what type of media minors consume given the wide variety of streaming services and pirating platforms that exist online today. Many fans of Zendaya during her Disney years would of course be interested in her next project. This was seen especially during a ‘Euphoria’ discussion panel in 2019, where a young girl asked her, ‘what was it like to go from Disney to this [Euphoria]’. What followed was a barrage of laughter from the audience as Zendaya goes from smiling to shocked and slightly concerned about whether this young girl really watched her new show. ‘Euphoria’ has been criticized for its hyper-sexual depiction of teenagers, with explicit sex scenes and extended moments of full-frontal nudity. Particularly unsettling are the many sexual encounters the character Jules has with older men she meets online. Its depiction of drugs and addiction led it to be criticized for romanticizing such issues. Samuel Getachew wrote in an article for Vogue that ‘Euphoria’ often felt, ‘more like an instructional tutorial or road map, one that sensationalizes its subject matter while neglecting to fully disclaim its risks and hazards.’ Its glittery and colourful aesthetic has given rise to many ‘Euphoria’-themed trends on social media, most notably makeup looks that mimic those seen in the show. If children are watching this social media content, they may be interested in what ‘Euphoria’ is about and therefore watch the show because, as noted, there aren’t many ways to control what people consume online, especially when a child star is the face of a show. Such children may mimic more than just the flashy makeup of the show, which has been a fear for parents since it was released. It sounds dramatic, I know, but children always copy what they are exposed to.

Over-exposure to online content was seen a lot during lockdown as children spent more time inside and on their phones, because, really, what else was there to do? One unfortunate effect of lockdown was the rise of mental health disorders, a subject that wasn’t uncommon on TikTok, whether through sharing experiences, support videos, or venting about struggles. The most popular disorders tended to be Tourette’s, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), borderline personality disorder (BPD), Autism and ADHD. PsychologyToday noted an alarming surge of young people presenting themselves for evaluation for those disorders throughout this period. The US National Library of Medicine published an article regarding the worrying rise of Tourette’s and tic-like behaviours saying that the tics these children showed ‘are likely a specific subgroup of functional tics largely influenced by the portrayal of and growing popularity of functional tics posted on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.’

This isn’t to say, however, that everyone on TikTok who says they have those disorders is lying, but due to the nature of trends, and trends in child behaviour generally, it’s not a huge leap to assume that many of these children were simply following what was trending. Then there comes the counterargument. Nothing justifies the intense bullying that some sufferers of mental health issues went through for sharing their experiences on social media. These children do need help, perhaps not always for the reasons given online, but they need help regardless of what is really going on. Romanticizing mental illnesses online is not a new phenomenon. Tumblr did it first with the ‘sad girl aesthetic’, which romanticized depression and eating disorders alongside music by artists such as ‘Marina and the Diamonds’, Melanie Martinez and Lana Del Rey. Lana del Rey is still synonymous with the ‘sad girl aesthetic’ today and Fiona Apple removed her music from TikTok because it was becoming synonymous with this aesthetic on via the platform.

There are other even darker risks to the kind of changes that can come from following social media trends at a young age. Roger Cleyes is a TikToker who was popular for singing songs aimed at younger audiences. His videos featured him singing songs by people like Lana Del Rey garnering him a huge audience of teenage girls online. However, he used this fame to get into contact with a younger fan under the pretense of gifting her Taylor Swift tickets. Disturbing texts from him to this girl were revealed, leading to him being ‘cancelled’ immediately. We all know the dangers of being online, but at the same time cast a blind eye towards it. Situations such as Roger Cleyes only reminds us of how easy it is to be exposed to predators online. Unfortunately, Cleyes is not the only account on Tiktok that hides this behavior under the pretense of being ‘young at heart’. Young people are always going to be susceptible to danger online. It is just the truth. Whether it be from predators or from the damaging effects social media has on self-confidence and mental health, as long as they are online the danger exists.

At the end of the day though, we can’t stop young people from developing and exploring themselves through social media. Generation Alpha is probably the first generation to be bombarded with so much information, and already we can see how it is affecting them, both positively and negatively. We can only guide them in the right direction, even though they probably won’t want to us listen anyway. This topic is complex and as generations change, so will mindsets. The future is uncertain but there is one thing that will always stay the same: younger people will always find a way to surprise us.

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