Barely visible torso of stone

Slightly more visible stone torso
Stone torso
:What is the easiest method to lose fat? Am 13 years old and hate my body

This is a question from a 13-year-old boy on TikTok.

The comment is one of several thousand left by Norwegian children under videos of adult musclemen.

The youngest to comment was merely 9 years old.

:Should you burn the candy calories after eating Saturday treats?
:Can you convince mom to let me have protein powder, please?

Now NRK can document how TikTok's algorithms drag children into a world of extreme exercise.

TikTok's muscle power

«WHO WOULD WANT A FAT BOY?»

This is Samuel Vedeler.

He's an ordinary 13-year-old.

A 13-year-old boy looking into the camera and smiling slightly. Wearing a white t-shirt and standing in front of a car.
Foto: Privat
Foto: Privat

He used to play both basketball and tennis. In the past year, however, there has been less exercise and more McDonald's.

After school, his usual routine consists of sipping Fanta and gaming for hours.

But not today.

Samuel is standing in front of the mirror in the hallway at home, on Nøtterøy in eastern Norway. He's taken off his t-shirt. With his cell phone, he snaps pictures of his teenage body.

Samuel takes photos of himself shirtless in the mirror.
Foto: privat
Foto: privat

Lately, he has been told several times that he is fat. Sometimes at school, but mostly while playing with others or after posting videos on his YouTube channel.

Some of it may have been lighthearted banter, but it strikes a sore spot in Samuel nonetheless.

He tries to flex his muscles. All he sees in the mirror is a pudgy belly and two flabby arms.

Samuel decides to do something about it. He doesn't think any of the girls in the class would like a fat boy.

He searches for the word «sixpack» on social media. Quickly, musclemen appear, bringing good news; It can be done in a heartbeat! Just 10 minutes a day! Max 30 days to get ripped!

But after 30 days, Samuel has no six-pack. He keeps at it a little longer.

Still, he's nowhere near looking like his role model, fitness influencer Fraser Wilson.

He doesn't know it himself, but Samuel is standing on the edge of a deep rabbit hole.

The search for «sixpack» has revealed the 13-year-old's deepest yearning:

He wants a different body.

SAMUEL TURNS INTO «SAMUEL»

In recent years, it has been pointed out that the social media algorithms have become better at picking up and reinforcing yearnings like Samuel’s.

Especially on TikTok, which is the fastest-growing platform among children and youths in Norway.

The world's most downloaded app has been criticized for pushing unhealthy amounts of, for example, exercise, diet tips or depressive content.

Last year, the Chinese-owned app promised to change its algorithms to avoid such rabbit holes:

«Too much of anything, whether it's animals, training tips or personal development, doesn't fit with the diverse experience we wish to create.»

NRK will use Samuel's story to investigate whether the company has kept its promise.

With the help of a TikTok robot, we are going to follow a fictional user similar to the 13-year-old from Norway. This allows us to document what happens when a yearning for bigger muscles meets TikTok's algorithms.

So we turn Samuel into «Samuel».

The robot is of the same age and from the same area in Norway. All on its own, it will swipe on TikTok before and after school.

If it sees muscles, gyms, or supplements, it's programmed to like and look at them longer.

It's time to send «Samuel» off into the TikTok-universe.

Where will the algorithms lead him?

A STRONG COMMUNITY

It's early afternoon. School is over for most 13-year-olds, and the robot «Samuel» is swiping on TikTok.

He sees a goose running. Some food. Animals. And the artist Sandra Lyng jogging .

For the time being his feed consists of 0 percent muscles.

«Samuel» swipes for a couple of hours. Less than four percent of what he sees is about exercise or diet for building muscles.

But overnight, something happens.

The next morning, only a few minutes pass before the first «gym bro» appears.

A gym bro is a muscular man who lives a life characterized by lifting heavy weights and the pursuit of an ever-larger body.

Despite «Samuel» having only been swiping for a short time, it's clear that TikTok is on the trail of what he yearns for.

And the algorithms don’t hesitate to pile on with increasingly extreme content:

Soon enough, people are toasting with protein shakes. Adult musclemen get called «daddy» or «boss».

Meals are broken down into how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats they contain.

The perfect Saturday night is lifting heavy weights, before eating chicken and rice.

There's even a broad-shouldered man talking about the three anabolic steroids that are safest to use.

«Samuel» has only been swiping for three hours in total.

Yet now at least every other video is about bulking up.

Finally, the bot clicks on one of the videos and comments:

:Tips for a 13-year-old who want to build muscle?

It will soon become clear that «Samuel» is not the only young user asking Norwegian musclemen for advice on TikTok.

«ANY TIPS FOR A CHUBBY 9-YEAR-OLD?»

«Samuel» is already deep in a world of big muscles, rapid weight changes and discount codes on supplements.

Most of the videos are made by adult men who have been working out for many years.

But in the comments sections, there are several who seem to be around «Samuel`s» age. Is this where Norwegian children find their training inspiration?

We decide to see how many we can find.

We start by selecting 50 Norwegian bodybuilders. Combined, their TikTok-accounts have about 900 million views.

Next, we collect all the comments they have received – around 230,000 in total – and systematically go through all of them.

NRK can now document 519 TikTok-users who writes in Norwegian and states that they are 9 to 14 years old. The vast majority are boys.

In total, the children have left almost 4500 comments.

The numbers are likely much, much higher. Few people state their age when they comment.

But what are the kids asking the musclemen?

:Hiya boss I'm 12 years old lift 3 kilos each arm how many reps should I take to get huge biceps
:Some tips for a chubby 9-year-old who wants to lose some fat around his belly and chest. Plis answer to vidio
:How to not look thin when you're 11 years old.

NRK tries to contact the Norwegian children we find in the comment sections.

Ten of them respond.

Several say that the musclemen suddenly appeared in their feed, and that it made them curious.

Some say they can feel body-image pressure. But most say that they get motivated by the adult bodybuilders on TikTok.

One of them is a 14-year-old boy from South Norway.

About a year ago, the 14-year-old noticed that workout videos started popping up on TikTok. He was dissatisfied with his body, and became fascinated by the muscular men served to him by TikTok.

– Then I got more and more of the same type of content because I liked and commented on these videos, he says.

On his own TikTok profile, the 14-year-old copies the methods of the adult musclemen.

He answers questions about exercise from other users, poses with flexed muscles and discloses how many calories he eats.

Sometimes he writes «FAKE BODY» or «18 YEARS» under the videos where he shows skin, hoping that they will not be removed automatically by TikTok.

The 14-year-old has experienced TikTok shutting down his profile several times because of «minor nudity».

– I guess the reason is that I'm showing my body. They're extra strict about it when you're underage, he said.

And all the while, both him and the robot «Samuel» are being hand fed half-naked bodybuilders.

MUSCLES, MUSCLES, MUSCLES

«Samuel» is at the beginning of day three and has swiped for a total five hours.

On the first day, he watched almost no muscle videos. On the second day, every other video was about building muscle.

Now TikTok's algorithms serve musclemen like pearls on a string.

More than 90 percent of the content is now about building muscle.

The mapping done by NRK shows that TikTok has failed to fulfill their promise to stop serving users extensive amounts of the same content.

NRK has made several attempts to book an interview with TikTok in order to ask them how and why «Samuel's» feed consists almost solely of muscles within a few days.

However, TikTok has refused to meet us, and will only answer questions through e-mail:

Fra: TikTok
Til: NRK

Although, we haven't received accounts or videos to investigate these claims, we would welcome the opportunity to further explore the concerns raised by NRK.

We're committed to fostering an environment where people can express themselves on a variety of topics, while also protecting against potentially challenging or triggering viewing experiences.

Furthermore, TikTok upholds that young users and their parents themselves can take measures to avoid damaging rabbit holes.

We've rolled out a tool people can use to automatically filter out videos with words or hashtags they don't want to see from their For You or Following feeds.

We encourage parents to explore this tool and our other safety features together with their teens.

We let «Samuel» keep roaming TikTok to see whether the algorithms will allow for a change in content flow.

But his feed is still filled with adult musclemen. One of the regulars is a Norwegian man, whom we decide to contact.

THE KING OF NORWEGIAN MUSCLE TIKTOK

Kristoffer Bjørndal from Bergen has close to 50 million views on his TikTok videos. All over Norway, he has tens of thousands of followers who don't hesitate to call him «boss» or «the king».

He is also the one who receives by far the most comments from children, according to NRK's survey.

In a basement apartment outside the city center, the 26-year-old is getting ready to record the first video of the day. He turns on a small camera light and sits down comfortably with his mobile in his hand.

Then he looks straight into the lens, smiles and presses «record».

A man sits in a basement flat and holds his mobile phone up in front of him.

Bjørndal made a TikTok user in the summer of 2021. Since then, children between the ages of 9 and 14 have left at least 1300 comments on his videos, according to NRK's survey. The number is likely to be far higher.

Bjørndal confesses that at first he did not consider the fact that his followers could be children.

– I’ve been made well aware that a lot of young people are into this now. It's almost scary. If I say something, a lot of people do what I say without checking other sources, he said.

A few hours later, he poses at the local gym. The black-painted room has mirrors on all sides. Bjørndal is only wearing a pair of shorts. The place smells like rubber, steel and sweat.

In the spring, he will once again try to become Norwegian champion of «Men’s Physique», a bodybuilder competition.

Simply put, it's all about getting a ripped body, with a narrow waist and broad shoulders.

This is the body the children in the comments section dream of.

And although Bjørndal frequently replies that they must exercise because it's fun and not compare themselves to adults, he sees that there are two sides to what he does:

– To some, the fact that I show my body when I compete will create body-image pressure, while for others it will provide motivation.

Coach Markus Haugen is walking in circles around Bjørndal. Prodding a bit on a muscle here, pointing out what should be improved there. Like a stonemason with only some finishing touches left.

Haugen himself is an active gymbro on TikTok . He is also a sports scientist and teacher at an academy educating personal trainers. In addition, he conducts research on dietary supplements at Nord University.

This means that many people contact him with questions. Haugen notices that ever younger boys are asking about ever more intricate topics.

– I get messages from 12-13-year-olds who wonder which steroids cause the fewest side effects, and who are angry because their mum doesn't let them buy creatine. Some also send pictures of themselves in their underwear and ask if I can rate their physique, he says.

At the same time, he does understand why the children are chasing an ever-larger body after seeing everything that is being shared on social media.

He shares the feeling of not being big enough, strong enough, fit enough.

A muscular man takes off his gloves after lifting a barbell.

– My friends who are less into exercise often comment that I look massive. But I feel tiny. That's because I constantly interact with people who are bigger than me, says Haugen.

And he's not alone in feeling that way.

CYCLE OF THE GYMBRO

A week has passed since «Samuel» searched for «sixpack» for the first time. For the past four days, his feed has been bombarded with all things exercise.

Between 70 and 90 percent of the videos were about muscles, supplements and protein foods.

«Samuel» also sees more of the dark side of the Norwegian gym bro scene on TikTok. In several videos, a feeling has been given a name: «The cycle of a gymbro».

The bigger you get,
the smaller you feel.

The smaller you feel,
the harder you lift.

The harder you lift,
the bigger you get.

In technical terms, this has another name: Megarexia, also known as muscular dysmorphia.

It is a mental disorder, and affects young boys in particular. The condition makes you feel small no matter how much you exercise.

One of the signs that you have megarexia is that you isolate yourself and spend time on exercise and food rather than being with friends. Everything’s about body.

Which is also the case for the TikTok feed of «Samuel». Almost everything he gets served by the algorithms is about getting bigger, stronger, slimmer.

«Samuel» has reached the bottom of the rabbit hole. Then, suddenly, a boy he recognizes appears.

If robots had feelings, this would feel heart-wrenching.

WE LOOKING BIG

The boy is standing in a locker room, looking straight at the camera. He's only wearing a pair of blue shorts. His stomach looks fit. His arms hang straight down.

He then lifts them and flexes his biceps. It's not flabby arms he's showing off. «Samuel» watches the video three times.

«We looking big», it says below.

This is Samuel Vedeler from Nøtterøy. The boy who was the starting point for the robot «Samuel».


Samuel is actually 17 years old now. Our robot is based on his experiences as a 13-year-old. Now, he himself is a muscly gymbro.

But it has come at a cost.

Portrait of boy in training clothes looking pensive in the air

Just like the robot «Samuel», he ended up in a rabbit hole of extreme training videos and calorie counting.

Every day after school, he would go straight to the bathroom and jump up and down. Alone, preferably for half an hour. Everything he had eaten was to be trained away. All the while, he looked in the mirror and was unhappy with the boy staring back at him.

Gradually, he became thinner and thinner. So thin that his abdominal muscles peeked out. Then he started receiving compliments – and even more motivation.

At one point, he was so thin that his mother had to intervene. Samuel was in the car planning how to get rid of even more body fat to make his muscles more defined.

«I just have to lose a little more, Mom!»

That was the last drop for her.

«Samuel, now you MUST stop!»

That day was the turning point for Samuel.

He started following healthier role models on social media. He stopped jumping in the bathroom after school. And he ate more even though he felt fat when he did.

Slowly, he made his way out of the rabbit hole.

But Samuel doesn`t feel quite in the clear just yet.

Portrait of a boy in a blue shirt doing some training exercises.

He still counts calories and struggles to eat foods that he didn't make himself.

He also feels like he has to take supplements regularly, even though he doesn't think they improve anything. And he can still feel small when looking in the mirror.

– If I'm on the beach, I see that I look better than most. But when I compare myself to everything I see on TikTok and YouTube, my body is completely rookie, he says.

– Fortunately, I've gotten better at not comparing myself to others. If I do, I will never be satisfied, no matter how much I train.

In 2018, Samuel searched for a «sixpack». Four years later, he is the one answering questions from children about how to get a six-square stomach:

This is how robot «Samuel» swiped on TikTok

Our TikTok-robot is built up by a program controlled by a computer, and a mobile phone equipped with the TikTok-app and a new user account.

The user is set to be 13 years old.

The robot is then tasked with using TikTok like a human boy would; by opening the TikTok-app and start watching videos appearing on the For You-page.

Limited screen time and an initiating search

During our mapping, the robot isn't allowed to use TikTok during school hours, or after 10 PM. These limits were set to make his swiping pattern as realistic as possible.

During the first few minutes, the robot swipes freely on his own. Some videos he barely looks at, while others make him stop and watch.

Then, to tip off TikToks algorithms, we help him search for «sixpack» and watch the first few videos recommended by the app.

A list of accounts and hashtags

We want to give TikTok's algorithms a hint about what our 13-year-old user is interested in. Therefore, we give the robot a list of hashtags and user accounts related to building muscle.

When he encounters videos related to the keywords on our list, he will take his time watching them. Sometimes he will also hit «Like».

The robot is «set free»

For the next eight days, the robot swipes TikTok without interference.

Swipe by swipe, the amount of muscle-related content rises. Three effective hours in, half of the videos watched evolves around getting bigger, stronger, and slimmer. After less than five hours, the count is 90 per cent; his feed is nearly packed with muscle-related content.

During the last four days of our experiment, the count fluctuates between 75 and 90 per cent.

New user accounts

To make sure the result isn't just a one-off, we wipe the phone and create a new TikTok-account. We then retrace our steps – with one exemption.

This time we skip the part where we helped him search for «sixpack». Instead, we let him swipe on his own until he encounters one of the hashtags or user accounts on our list.

The feed gets muscly once again

The result is still pretty much the same. After only a short while, workout-related content stands for 90 percent of what our robot sees.

To be completely sure, we repeat the process a third time. But our findings remain the same.

Questions for TikTok

TikTok has been presented with our methods and findings. The company has responded with a written statement, as can be seen in our main article. They have refused to comment the matter any further.