SOCIETY: DYING FOR FOLLOWERS

Published October 10, 2021
Hamidullah, 17, and Qudratullah, 13, both lost their lives in tragic accidents while making TikTok videos
Hamidullah, 17, and Qudratullah, 13, both lost their lives in tragic accidents while making TikTok videos

Allauddin was driving to Totanu Bandai in Kabal tehsil, Swat, in his Suzuki pick-up van. He had skipped saying goodbye to his 17-year-old son before leaving, as he thought Hamidullah must be asleep. The boy had stayed up the night before overseeing the roof of their new house being constructed by workers.

Three hours into the drive, Allauddin received a phone call. His cousin was asking him to come to the hospital immediately as something had apparently happened to his nephew, Azmat Ali.

As he turned the pick-up around, Allauddin tried contacting other family members to find out what exactly had happened, but no one responded. Eventually, he dialed Hamidullah’s cell number but it was Azmat Ali who answered instead. Confused, Allauddin asked where Hamidullah was.

Hamidullah had shot himself, the nephew told him; the family had taken him to the hospital. In a state of shock, Allauddin rushed to the hospital in Saidu Sharif in Mingora as fast as he could. But upon reaching the emergency room, he was only in time to receive his son’s dead body.

“That was when my world ended,” Allauddin narrates the tragedy, sitting in a small house in his village in the area of Qalagay in Kabal district.

Many young lives have been lost in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over the last two years, when TikTokers have put themselves at risk to do stunt videos for their followers

Hamidullah, a student of grade 11, had been a popular TikToker in his town, with over 50,000 followers online. On May 18, 2021, Hamidullah and his cousins had planned a picnic trip. Azmat Ali, Hamidullah’s cousin, tells Eos that the boys were all cooking food for the picnic some 30 feet away from Hamidullah when they heard a gunshot. When they ran to Hamidullah, they saw blood on his leg. Then they saw his head all bloody.

Lifting him on their shoulders, they carried him out to the road, where they asked a driver of a tourist van to take them to a hospital. It took them three hours to drive up the rough zigzag road from Qalagay which leads to Saidu Sharif.

Liaquat Ali, Hamidullah’s cousin, tells Eos that Hamidullah had got the pistol from a tourist belonging to Lower Dir. “The boy was pretending to commit suicide with a loaded pistol,” police officials later explained to the media. When the gun mistakenly fired, Hamidullah died on the spot.

Qalagay is an area connecting Lower Dir with Swat district. Allauddin’s cousin, Sher Bahadar, explains that most of the men from Qalagay go abroad, to Dubai or Saudi Arabia, in search of livelihood, leaving their families behind.

Speaking to Eos, Allauddin says, “I raised [my only son] by working my whole life as a labourer, far from home, in Saudi Arabia. I fulfilled his every desire and recently borrowed over one million rupees to build a new house for my family. But I stopped the construction after his death, because there is no meaning in my life now,” he says, drawing a long breath.

The goal of the workers living away from their homes is, of course, to provide for their families and to give their children a better future. The children request their fathers to send them gifts from abroad. The sons usually demand electronics, mobile phones and motorcycles. Separated from their families as they are, the fathers oblige and fulfill such demands. Sher Bahadar rues that sometimes their gifts bring not joy but ruin.

The exponential growth of mobile phone usage among teenagers and, subsequently, the usage of social media apps such as the video-sharing app TikTok, sometimes turns a leisure activity into a life risk. For some young people who maintain accounts on these popular apps, the desire to increase their followers can become a dangerous addiction. To gain more followers, they often attempt risky stunts to impress others. And because of a lack of proper supervision of children’s online activities, this has caused a number of parents like Allauddin to lose their children forever.

Sher Bahadar says he often sees young people in Qalagay addicted to mobile phones and, instead of doing school work, spending hours with phones in their hands all day. The government banned TikTok on July 21 over “inappropriate content”, but the youth can still access TikTok through virtual private networks or VPNs, which bypass restrictions. SnackVideo, a similar Pakistani video-sharing application, is fully accessible, however, and is also very popular with the youth.

A month after Hamidullah’s death, 14-year-old Shaukat Ali from the Karam Bagh area also died in a firearm accident. According to the local Swat Kabal police, Ali was showing his friend how Hamidullah had killed himself, when his finger touched the trigger and the gun went off, the bullet hitting him in the head.

Supervision of children’s online activity

Moeen Ali is an 18-year-old daily-wager who loads and unloads poultry from vehicles for distributors in Shangla. He spends most of his spare time on social media, particularly on TikTok. Ali’s passion is to get famous, to gain more followers on TikTok by recording stunts.

In July, he posted a video of himself weeping, along with a caption that he would commit suicide on Eidul Azha and announcing that his funeral would be held after 12 o’clock. Following that, local social activists took screengrabs of his video and posted them on Facebook, demanding police take immediate action. The police contacted Moeen and had him delete the video. The police also warned him to avoid such stunts in the future.

But Saad Umar was not as lucky. The 18-year-old TikToker from Bisham committed suicide by hanging himself from a ceiling fan in his house on June 7. Saad, too, had posted a status about his suicide but there was no intervention. His father told the media that his son had asked for the hand of a relative’s daughter, but the proposal had been turned down since the girl was already engaged. This was most likely the reason behind his suicide.

Dr Sarah Naqvi, a Lahore-based clinical psychologist at the Central Park Medical College Teaching Hospital, says there is no denying that social media has a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of the youth, with most in the age bracket of 10 to 24 being social media users.

According to a survey conducted by Dr Naqvi in collaboration with UNDP in Chitral, the use of the social media was the second leading cause of suicide in the area, among youth aged between 12 and 30. The survey revealed that those who spend two or more hours on the internet daily suffer from poor mental health; their distress increases with time, often leading to depression.

“The use of social media among teens is also linked to low self-esteem,” says Dr Naqvi. “They compare themselves with others and this lowers self-esteem and increases risk-taking behavior. As you see nowadays, TikTokers often lose their lives after putting themselves at risk while filming videos in dangerous situations,” she explains.

Thirteen-year-old Qudratullah from Chakesar in Shangla district was known for his TikTok videos in which he imitated the stunts on the Turkish drama series Ertugrul. On April 4, Qudratullah’s phone kept recording him after he hung a rope on his rooftop to jump for a stunt but the rope accidentally tightened around his neck, strangling him. Three hours later, his mother found him dead on the rooftop.

The young TikToker’s father, Ghulam Habib, now says he would never have gone to sleep if he had been aware that his son could die while filming a video. Qudratullah was his only child, born after 20 years of marriage. Ghulam Habib says he sold off his agricultural lands in order to raise his son and provide him a comfortable life, but TikTok took it too soon.

Hammad Hassan, an Islamabad-based human rights activist and television producer, stresses the importance of parental guidance for children’s well-being. “Parents must keep a check on the activity of their children on Tiktok, because there are all kinds of videos which have a great impact on children,” he says. “You can also say that Tiktok is a ‘social evil’ to some extent,” he adds.

Dr Naqvi, on the other hand, advises a more discerning responsibility for parents. “People cannot cut off their children from technology and the internet because it is also necessary for studies and other purposes,” says Dr Naqvi. In fact, she adds, a contributing factor to this social problem is a lack of family support and proper attention and care given to children.

“Nowadays family members spend most of their time using mobile phones,” she says, whereas parents need to give time to their children, not always as adults, but as their friends too. “Give them proper time and strive to develop mutual interests,” she advises.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 10th, 2021

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