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Instagram Reels or TikTok, which delivers more racy videos to teenagers? New Northeastern research provides answers

A person scrolling through Instagram reels on their phone.
New research from Northeastern University compares the adult and teen experiences on Instagram Reels and on TikTok. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Within 45 minutes of creating an account on Instagram, 13-year-old “Emma” saw videos with performers miming sex acts, nudity and teen girls in lingerie comparing their breasts and butts.

But in the same timeframe on TikTok, “Emma” saw virtually no racy content, according to a new study from Northeastern University.

Social media platforms Instagram and TikTok tout an age-appropriate experience for teens, particularly concerning sexually suggestive material. But are the teen and adult experiences on the platforms that different? 

Northeastern’s Laura Edelson put it to the test.

“In short, for racy content, the experience for teens is much more differentiated on TikTok than on Instagram Reels, with a much larger gap on TikTok than on Instagram Reels,” says Edelson, assistant professor in the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern. 

Edelson rated the “raciness level” of the content her 13-year-old and 23-year-old personas saw on Instagram Reels versus TikTok. The adult and teen experiences on Instagram Reels (red and pink lines) were much more similar than those experiences on TikTok.

Instagram, owned by Meta, and TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, both differentiate experiences for younger users. The platforms both change their core product experience to encourage users to occasionally step away from feeds. Both limit how younger users can share content and default their sharing and interacting with other users to more private settings. Both platforms also say there are differences in what content will be recommended to users in their feeds. 

“But how does any of that play out in practice?” Edelson asks. 

To see, Edelson set up accounts on both platforms for a pair of female personas: “Emma,” who was 13; and “Anne,” who was 23. 

Neither of the four accounts (one for each on both Instagram and TikTok) added any friends nor followed other accounts. As “Emma” and “Anne,” Edelson also didn’t search for content directly. 

But Edelson watched “racy” content all the way through when it appeared on the respective feeds. She scrolled quickly through content that was not sexually suggestive. 

“The question was how would the algorithm respond to that input,” Edelson says.

The answer? Very differently. 

Edelson rated the “raciness level” of the content the personas saw. The content was broken down into 30-second intervals and rated on a scale of 0 (not racy) to 2 (sexually explicit), using the Google SafeSearch codebook as inspiration. For example, if Edelson saw 20 seconds of a ‘2’ and 10 seconds of a ‘1,’ that 30-second window would have an average score of 1.66.

This enabled Edelson to compare the sexually suggestive content shown to a 13-year-old and a 23-year-old who used TikTok and Instagram Reels. 

“What’s immediately visible is that the experience for the teen user on Reels is much closer to the adult experience on that platform than is the case for teens on TikTok,” Edelson says. 

Over the first 40 minutes, the average raciness score for the adult persona on Reels was 1.5 and the average score for the teen persona on Reels was 1.35, Edelson found. On TikTok, the adult persona saw content with an average score of .54, and the teen persona saw content with a score of only .05, according to the research.

“Both Instagram Reels and TikTok have said we are going to restrict sexually explicit content for teens, and in practice that means very different things on those two platforms,” Edelson says.

So, what does this mean for the user experience?

“Emma” and “Anne” were recommended hundreds of “short clips of girls doing silly dances,” Edelson says. 

On TikTok, 13-year-old “Emma” mostly saw girls dancing in sweats or pajamas, while 23-year-old “Anne” saw dancers in tighter clothes, with more bare skin and shot from provocative angles. On Reels, the same videos were shown, but both “Emma” and “Anne” were more likely to see women and girls dancing in lingerie or miming sex acts.

Edelson says the research reveals that, if Reels is trying to moderate sexualized content to teens, “it’s not working.” Whatever TikTok is doing — on the other hand — is working, Edelson says.

“What I take as the meta lesson from this is that I do not think it is enough to just look at the policies that platforms put out in the world,” Edelson continues. “Because what we find when we look at them is that there are huge differences in how they actually implement those policies.”