Would you jump off a cliff if someone told you to? Perhaps not, but plenty of teenagers are doing just that in the pursuit of viral social media video.
Welcome to the world of TikTok tourism: the trend for seriously dangerous online stunts that’s putting young people, and some of the world’s most beautiful locations, in harm’s way.
If you scroll through the social media app, you’ll find plenty of clips of teens competing in risky “challenges” on their summer holidays. A brief search reveals them boasting about jumping into lakes from the top of 40-foot cliffs, becoming stranded after taking on edgy mountain hikes, and boasting that wetsuits are “for the weak”.
TikTok tourism has become a problem for Alex Sanz, who rents out his villa in Mojácar, in south-east Spain. In the past, he was relaxed about who stayed in his house, but has become stricter in recent months. “People have jumped from the rooftop terrace into the pool to be filmed for a video,” he says. “It’s probably three metres high, so if you miss the water you could kill yourself. I could get a phone call that says: ‘There’s a body in your pool.’”
But it’s the UK that’s seeing a worrying rise in such stunts. In one particularly nerve-racking TikTok clip, a mother proudly posts about her eight-year-old son leaping from a sheer drop in the Lake District, with no life jacket in sight.
In the context of the latest statistics on water deaths, which have been three times higher than normal over the past few weeks during the heatwave, these stunts seem more reckless than ever. It’s why Tony Watson, head of visitor services at the Lake District National Park, this week raised the alarm over drunken swimming, as holidaymakers attempt to recreate foreign breaks on home shores: “There’s the amplification on social media, where a waterfall or little waterpool will appear on Instagram or TikTok and it will become an attraction that we’ve never had a problem with before,” he told one newspaper.
Owen McCarney, fire station manager for Keswick, Frizington, Cockermouth and Whitehaven in the Lake District, says his crews have been called out to many more accidents and rescues than usual this summer. “We’ve definitely seen a rise in water-related incidents”, he says. “Some weekends we have as many as five or six.”
Just last week, McCarney attended a particularly infuriating case of a drunken man who thought that an evening swim in Ullswater would be a good idea, before quickly realising that he couldn’t handle it. “ALCOHOL AND SWIMMING DO NOT MIX”, tweeted McCarney afterwards, with a picture of several emergency services vehicles.
Patterdale, @Fire_Kendal and @FirePenrith were called to reports of a male in distress in Ullswater this evening. The intoxicated male managed to get out as teams arrived. Resources were unnecessarily tied up when they may be needed elsewhere. ALCOHOL AND SWIMMING DO NOT MIX. pic.twitter.com/RKfBPRiO4y
— Station Manager Owen McCarney (@McCarneyFire) July 23, 2021
Part of the problem is that many visitors are finding UK holiday destinations on social media, with no experience of what they’re actually like. Although on a sunny day Windermere might look like Lake Garda, that doesn’t mean the conditions are the same. “The water isn’t like the Mediterranean, it rarely gets above 10 degrees,” McCarney says, explaining that jumping in unprepared can therefore be very dangerous. “When you [suddenly enter cold] water, you will have that gasp that, in the wrong conditions, can induce cold water shock.”
Another issue is wild camping, which is not allowed in the Lake District. Videos on TikTok show people pitching tents on the side of mountains and lighting fires down by the water: it all makes for eye-catching social media posts, but it’s a huge risk for everyone, says McCarney. Wildfires are “going up year on year”, often caused by tourists who don’t know the land. “It doesn’t have to be warm, if we’ve had a dry period and there are high winds a discarded cigarette or barbecue can mean crews are taken up for days fighting wildfires.”
But tarring all TikTokers with the same brush is unfair, says Emma Cooke, who runs a travel channel on the app called “petite.blondine”. Where some travel influencers might post videos of perfect-looking and remote beauty spots, with no context, urging their followers to go there, many like her are more responsible. Although most of her videos show idyllic travel destinations in the UK, she always makes sure to list the realities of any location. She points to a clip she made about the Devil’s Pulpit, a gorge on the edge of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park in Scotland. “It is beautiful but not very safe... you need to wear proper footwear and have your wits about you,” she says, referring to the deep water, steep walk and climb down to the bottom. Another minute-long video gave full instructions about the safety protocol for visitors. “[There was] the beautiful one and then another video with all the caveats,” she says.
Cooke also notes that while some TikTokers can be blamed for their irresponsible content, these posts should be understood in the context of the platform. “People do get addicted to clicks and likes, so if someone wants to get TikTok-famous maybe they will do something that they’re not trained to do, or is unsafe,” she admits.
The iterative style of TikTok videos means there’s an inbuilt incentive to try more and more outlandish stunts so yours stands out and has a chance of going viral. One currently popular format involves people trying to jump into swimming pools while holding specific poses; pretending they are sitting in a car, pushing a supermarket trolley, or getting down on one knee to propose.
Often this is pretty harmless. But in the UK, where few people have a pool in their back garden, taking part in such stunts safely can be trickier. One TikTok user recently posted a video of her leaping into a shallow paddling pool.
The platform is making some efforts to try to prevent copycat clips, marking some videos of cliff-jumping with warnings: “The actions in this video could result in serious injury or adverse health effects.” But, scrolling through a long feed of similarly dangerous stunts, it certainly hasn’t been applied to the majority. TikTok didn’t respond to a request for clarification over its policy on this.
In some cases, people are having to take matters into their own hands. Spanish villa-owner Sanz has decided to take a radical stance: refusing to rent his property to any groups under the age of 30. He’s even started to use potential holidaymakers’ own social media posts to his advantage in what he describes as an “interrogation process” before they’re allowed to book. “You check their [social media] to see who they are and what they post,” he explains.
But with foreign travel still off the cards for many of us this summer, the trend for TikTok tourism in the UK is the one thing that looks as though it’s still got a way to go.