Why This Teen Walked Away From Millions of TikTok Followers

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here

Sixteen-year-old Ava Rose Beaune was hanging out at a friend’s house on an otherwise unremarkable mid-July afternoon when her cell service briefly shut off. She tried to text her dad, but it wouldn’t send—definitely odd, she thought, but not alarming.

Then people started messaging her: Did you see what’s on your Twitter? Your Instagram? What’s going on? She logged on to her social media accounts and saw that her new Facebook status alluded to suicide—but she hadn’t posted it.

“My whole family thought I was going to kill myself,” Ava said.

Suddenly, a man she’d never met was calling her parents, demanding to speak to her. He had control of all her contacts, texts, emails, and social media accounts. The next day, he texted her: I just want to talk to you. (Spoken and written quotes from Ava’s alleged stalker are italicized to indicate they are not necessarily direct quotes but are as she remembers them.) He called her, and she answered, begging him to do whatever he wanted to her Instagram account, if that’s what he was after. “Delete it. Delete it and leave me alone if that’s what you want,” she told him. You don’t want that, he said. “I do,” she replied. I just want to meet up with you and have sex with you, he said.

“That’s when I hung up the phone, and I was like, this is getting weird,” Ava told me. This stranger had managed to hack her accounts using a method called SIM swapping, in which he contacted her wireless service carrier and convinced them that he owned the account and needed them to transfer access to the SIM card to the phone in his hand—effectively taking over her digital life.

In screenshots viewed by VICE, the hacker can be seen posting a Story to her Instagram about being Ava’s new boyfriend, issuing rape threats, and writing things like “I can’t wait til I impregnate you and marry you. you only live 5 MIN away from me.” She got her social media accounts back in her own possession and resolved the problem with her carrier. “OK, this is, you know, the end, whatever,” she recalled thinking.

With more than 2 million followers on TikTok, Ava was a minor celebrity in her own circles. So, she said, she was used to men being creepy, or even hostile. This was extreme, she thought, but it was over.

But it wasn’t. This was only the beginning of weeks of daily harassment so severe it would uproot her life entirely.

As of this year, TikTok likely has more than 1 billion monthly active users, and the market research firm Statista estimates that adolescents between 10 and 19 years old make up 32.5 percent of those users. The spiritual successor to Vine, TikTok is a micro-video sharing platform that favors an off-the-cuff, do-it-yourself style: People of all ages lip-sync to movie clips and songs, mimic elaborate dances in their living rooms, and use filters to edit the 60-second videos into tiny works of art. It’s also something of a fame lottery.

All this manic, frenetic energy combined with massive audiences is addictive in the same way any social media platform is: with casino-style scrolling and a notification system and the looming chance at virality. Normal teens like Ava—who signed with a talent agency in January 2020—become voracious consumers as well as unstoppable creators, hoping to strike it big, get discovered, or at the very least, make it to the For You feed, where one video plucked by some mysterious algorithm from a user’s feed can get in front of millions of eyeballs instantly.

“I’d rather not give those people the satisfaction of being noticed.”

Despite all this, cyberbullying experts say that TikTok isn’t the worst social media app for harassment. “The way that TikTok is built reduces the likelihood of cyberbullying when compared to other apps,” said Sameer Hinduja, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. Features like direct messaging that only allow mutual followers to contact each other, and the inability to add images or videos to comment sections, set it apart from other apps. “To be sure, cyberbullying can manifest itself in hurtful TikTok videos directed towards others, as well as in comments and in livestream chats—but these possibilities are no different than on any other social media app,” Hinduja told me.

According to TikTok’s transparency report from 2020, 2.5 percent of videos the platform removed were for bullying or harassment. But there are some features unique to TikTok that make it prone to a different, more personal kind of harassment. “Duet” allows other users to repost your video with a split-screen video of their own. Most of the time, it’s used innocently, for singalongs or miniature skits. But some users say it opens a portal for disturbing abuse. In 2018, BuzzFeed News reported that people—often young children—would duet their videos with a video of them acting out suicide, putting plastic bags over their heads or belts around their necks, to show their disgust at the original post. And a Duet from a more popular account can send a wave of attention from their followers to your page, not all of it positive.

Nick, who runs a TikTok account with his five-year-old daughter Sienna (the family goes by their first names publicly, to protect their privacy), told me that they experience Duet-based harassment on top of the usual comment section cruelty. “Some users would duet our videos and say mean, nasty things that were just not true,” he said. “In the beginning, it made us second-guess the path we were going down.”

It hasn’t stopped since they started the account, in October of 2018—and they’ve since gathered more than 14 million followers. But they have gotten better at managing it, Nick said. “Sienna is luckily very intelligent and knows that this is not OK. I made sure to sit down with her, emphasizing how special she is and that people may not see that right away.”

Nick believes TikTok does a good job of handling harassment, and giving creators the tools to handle it themselves. “If there is consistent harassment from a specific account, I block and delete their hateful comments,” he said. “For the negative comments in general, I tend to just ignore them. I’d rather not give those people the satisfaction of being noticed.”

TikTok does allow users to opt out of Duets. But these are the features that foster that slingshot fame; opting out of them means opting out of your chance at going viral or just growing your audience.

Fatima and Munera Fahiye, who are sisters and TikTok creators with around 3 million followers each, told me that they also find the platform to be responsive when they need support. “There were multiple accounts on TikTok impersonating me on the app, and TikTok helped me by verifying my account to let people know that my account is the real one,” Munera said.

Whatever harassment they do receive—which often means racist comments—they say is outweighed by the support of fans. “I have been on TikTok for a year now, and I have not experienced any harassment, but after gaining some followers I have seen some mean comments about my hijab every now and then, but I try to not give it any attention, because the love and support that I am getting from my fans is more than the little hate, so it does not matter,” Fatima said.

The harassment that happens on TikTok doesn’t stay there, however. On Reddit, whole communities are devoted to catching women and girls on social media in the middle of wardrobe slips, where you can see down their shirts, up their skirts, or anytime they shift and move and reveal a glimpse of more skin. Standalone websites are made for this purpose, too, and for doxxing and harassing women who might have a TikTok in addition to an OnlyFans or other separate adult platform.

In 2020, a server on the gaming chat platform Discord took requests for TikTok creators to be made into deepfakes—AI-generated fake porn. Although child pornography is against Discord’s terms of use, even in the form of deepfakes, one of the most requested targets was only 17. A request for another deepfake noted, “by the way she turns 18 in 4 days.”

Creators also find their content, clothed as in the originals or deepfaked, reposted to porn sites. In concert, the people on each of these platforms work together to create an overwhelming environment of virtual assault for many young women.

Until TikTok, Ava had never really been into social media, she told me on a Zoom call in her parents’ house. She was taking a break from high school distance learning; this was her senior year, spent over video chats because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I always told myself I’d never make a TikTok because my friends all had it and I was like, that’s so cringe,” she said. “Like, I’ll never start that. But they were like, ‘Come on make one,’ so I did.”

She said she made her first account when she was 15, and posted the usual stuff: trend dances, makeup videos. Within a few days, her audience went from the friends who talked her into joining to 150,000 followers—a leap in popularity that she still doesn’t entirely understand. The sudden attention startled her; she deactivated the account.

She accidentally reactivated the account later, and at this point, having gotten over the initial shock of attention, decided to give it another try.

A rock smashed through her mom’s car window with a threatening note tied to it: I want to take you and impregnate you.

Once Ava started posting new videos, the hateful comments started. “I thought that was like the worst it could get,” she said. “It was like, body shaming and hate—the body shaming especially never bothered me, and the normal hate comments were just like, whatever.” A few users created accounts to post rape threats about her, and this did disturb her, but she took it as par for the course as a young woman online.

That is, until one of her followers started stalking her and her best friend, Gabriel. That follower messaged Gabriel, mentioning her home address and demanding to know who she was dating. “So, we’re both kind of like laughing like this guy’s obviously just some weird fan,” she recalled.

I have something planned for Ava. You’ll see in the next three months. I’m planning something big, Ava says he told Gabriel. He hacked her phone three months later, on Gabriel’s 18th birthday. After that, the man texted Ava every day.

“It was stuff about how he wants to rape me, how he’s going to get me, how I can easily stop this—he was texting my dad saying, She’s not allowed to hang out with her friends, if she goes out I’ll know. Saying he’s watching over us and stuff like that.” Every time Ava thought the situation was as bad as it could get—that this man she’d never met was going as far as he could go—he went further.

Then a rock smashed through her mom’s car window with a threatening note tied to it: I want to take you and impregnate you.

Cyberbullying has proven long-lasting effects on teens and young adults. As Hinduja noted, studies show that it’s tied to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, family problems, academic difficulties, delinquency, school violence, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.

“So at this point I was like, ‘OK, this is getting a little serious.’”

“Most important to me is how negative experiences online unnecessarily compromise the healthy flourishing of our youth at school,” he said. According to his and his co-director Justin Patchin’s research at the Cyberbullying Research Center, over 60 percent of students who experienced cyberbullying reported that it “deeply affected” their ability to learn and feel safe while at school, and 10 percent of students surveyed said they’ve skipped school at least once this past year because of it.

“That cannot be happening,” Hinduja said.

“In general, I hope people will remember that everyone is a human being just like them. We are all capable of feeling hurt and disappointment, and just because there are numbers and a platform attached to our lives doesn’t mean we are impervious to hurtful words or harassing comments,” Nick said. “TikTok is a space where everyone should feel safe to express their creativity, and in order to do that we need to be kind to others.”

Maxwell Mitcheson, Ava’s agent and the head of talent at TalentX Entertainment, told me that he’s seen harassment take a direct toll on young people. “A lot of creators are growing up in front of millions of people, and that involves making mistakes and learning and growing from them,” he said. “The hateful rhetoric definitely weighs on them; some don’t even look at their comments section anymore just to try and stay positive.”

“It’s the inability to make mistakes, being attacked for being authentically yourself, and the sudden lack of anonymity,” Mitcheson said.

Ava’s experience was on the extreme side, he explained, but creators at his agency have had instances of hacking and stalking, or fans randomly showing up at creators’ homes. “We’ve had to involve security and PIs before, but Ava’s was a situation that could have ended in tragedy if it weren’t for the Toronto police intervening.”

After the window-breaking threat, Ava said the police told her that she couldn’t stay at home. She went to stay at a friend’s house, but he still reached her there, she said. “He just kept going saying like, look at what you’ve done, this is all your fault,” she said. He sent her a private message that would delete after it was opened, so she recorded it using a friend’s phone:

I need you to accept the fact that I’m extorting you right now, you need to accept that this isn’t going to end no one’s gonna catch me, the police haven’t ever caught me when I did this before, accept it, give me what I want, I want you to meet up at this park right behind your house I want to do this this this this to you

if you don’t I will kill your parents in front of you in your living room and take you.

“So at this point I was like, ‘OK, this is getting a little serious,’” she told me.

She said she sent the message to the police, who told her whole family to stay somewhere else, hours away. They did, for two weeks. He kept texting her: are you going to be there Saturday you’re making the wrong decision you better answer me.

Eventually, Ava recalled, he was caught. He left the VPN he was using to mask his location off for a half a second, according to her—just long enough, she remembers the police telling her, for the investigators to capture his location data and pinpoint where he was texting her from.

Ava said that the police told her that when he was caught, they found six separate phones and a bunch of SIM cards in his possession—full of pictures and videos of Ava that he’d taken from her accounts. According to the Toronto area detective Ava and her family worked with, the case is still in the courts.

Talking to me now, over Zoom, in between classes and facing midterms, Ava seems fine. She’s able to recount this story in delicate detail, without flinching. She understands the gravity of what happened to her, and how it upended her life. Her family decided to move away, “to the middle of nowhere, pretty much,” she said.

But she is different now. She stopped posting to her TikTok to focus on her friendships and family, though she still posts sporadically on Instagram. She would like to be more active on social media, but she’s not pushing herself. She has anxiety that she describes as “really bad.”

“It’s really affected me, like, you know, just like not being able to live in your own home, and like, even when you are at home, not being safe… It’s really hard, especially when I was only 16 when this happened,” she said. “It is hard, and knowing that my parents were always stressed out and not being able to go outside and walk without feeling kind of scared…”

Before she stopped posting new TikTok videos, she tried to open up on the platform in videos about her mental health and her experiences. But people weren’t receptive to it.

“Especially when they’re like, Oh, a TikTok girl that all the simps love, or What are you complaining about, all these boys love you, kind of thing,” she told me. “I’ve been trying to go to therapy and trying to get over it, but when that kind of thing happens you’re not really the same afterwards. You have a different outlook on social media. You’re kind of scared of if it’s going to happen again. You don’t think those people exist until it happens to you, and then you’re like, wow, this is crazy.”

Online harassment has a silencing effect on people of all ages and genders, but women have it especially bad—and young women are pushed offline, out of the center of conversations and control of their own narrative, at earlier and earlier ages. As adolescents, harassment online makes them do worse in school, seek riskier behaviors, and contemplate or even attempt and follow through on self-harm and suicide. As grown women, this looks like anxiety, a lack of self-confidence, not sleeping, and stepping out of the online conversation altogether to protect their own mental health, and, in severe cases, the safety of themselves and their loved ones. When harassment is allowed to carry on, and women are shamed for seeking help, the damage digs deeper—and we lose those voices.

I asked Ava what she wishes more people understood—about her, about what it’s like to have a big social media following, about how it feels to have millions of eyes on you at such a young age. “I just wish they knew that just because you have followers, doesn’t mean you have this perfect life,” she said. “Just because boys love you, that doesn’t complete your life. When these kinds of things happen, you should be able to be open about it.”

Follow Samantha Cole on Twitter.