Children’s rights commissioner notifies police over Polish youth mental health campaign involving TikTok

Poland’s commissioner for children’s rights, Mikołaj Pawlak, has notified police regarding a campaign using TikTok…

Children’s rights commissioner notifies police over Polish youth mental health campaign involving TikTok

Poland’s commissioner for children’s rights, Mikołaj Pawlak, has notified police regarding a campaign using TikTok to promote mental health among young people that is being run by the charitable foundation of a prominent television presenter. He has also reported the issue to the education and family ministers.

Pawlak argues that TikTok is itself a cause of mental health problems among young people and claims that the campaign did not check its employees against Poland’s register of sex offenders, as is required by organisations working with minors.

The Unaweza Foundation – whose founder and head is Martyna Wojciechowska, a presenter and travel reporter for TVN, Poland’s main private broadcaster – has rejected Pawlak’s accusations and announced that it is considering legal action of its own.

The organisation, whose mission is to help women in Poland and around the world by “equalising economic, social and legal opportunities”, last year launched a project called Young Heads (Młode głowy) to research and promote mental health and self-esteem among young people in Poland.

As part of the campaign, schools were invited to offer free and anonymous surveys to be completed by their students. The results are due to be published on 17 April, allowing schools to see the state of the mental health of their pupils.

The initiative also included an educational campaign aimed at drawing attention to and normalising mental health issues faced by young people and encouraging them to seek help if they need it.

However, the project was criticised by Pawlak – an official appointed by the conservative government’s majority in parliament – over the fact that popular Chinese social video service TikTok is its strategic partner and main communication platform.

“Researchers warn that TikTok is already having an alarmingly large impact on the behaviour of young people, who have begun to perceive reality through the prism of worthless and even threatening narratives imposed by this application, which leads to extremely dangerous behavioural addictions,” announced Pawlak’s office.

He also raised concern about privacy, noting that experts have warned that TikTok collects “excessive amounts of data” from its users, “which could allow users to be tracked online even beyond the app”. He says parents and children taking part in the survey were not informed that TikTok was involved in the campaign.

Pawlak also says an inspection found that the Unaweza Foundation has not set up an account with the Register of Sexual Offenders, which is a legal requirement for organisations operating in a school environment in order “to protect children and youths from contact with persons convicted of crimes”.

“This is a violation of the law, about which the commissioner has notified the police and supervisory authorities: the minister of education and science and the minister for family and social policy,” concluded the statement.

In response, the Unaweza Foundation released its own statement on Thursday, in which it claimed that Pawlak’s accusations contain “false and misleading information” that “violates the good name of the Unaweza Foundation”.

It notes that TikTok has “no access to or ability to collect student data as part of the project and has no access to individual responses”. The social media platform is a partner in the project “only in terms of communication support”, and has not provided any funding towards it.

TikTok’s press office likewise issued a statement to news portal Wirtualne Media in which it assured that they “at no stage had had or will have access to the data or to the answers provided as part of the study”, which “was not conducted via [our] platform”.

Regarding the sex offenders register, the Unaweza Foundation notes that none of its employees or anyone else involved in the project was directly involved in conducting research in schools. Those tasks were carried out by teachers. This means the organisations running the project did not need to notify the register.

As well as appealing to the commissioner to retract his claims, the Unaweza Foundation had announced that it is seeking advice on whether and how to take “appropriate legal steps related to the infringement of [its] personal rights”.

Mental health among young people has become a major issue in Poland. The last two years have seen a record number of suicide attempts by children and adolescents registered by the police. The education minister recently blamed this on “brainwashing” of children by “LGBT, neo-liberal and neo-Maxist ideologies”.

Pawlak himself in 2020 wrote to the health minister warning him that there was an urgent need to improve mental health care for young Poles.

Main image credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Flickr (under CC BY-NC 2.0)