The TikTokkers Taking Down the Troubled Teen Industry

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S1: Please. Like, I can’t go back to these places. You’ve no idea. There is no convincing them, no matter what I said. So I just didn’t trust them. They made me not trust anyone, not even my own family.

S2: Hi, I’m Rachel Hampton.

S3: And I’m Madison Malone Kircher. You’re listening to. I see. Why am I?

S2: In Case You Missed.

S3: It, Slate’s podcast about Internet culture.

S2: And today we’re giving a eulogy.

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S3: Time to play a dirge. And you know where you can play it?

S2: Not on the iPod because it’s dead.

S3: All right. Oh, God.

S2: Oh, my God. On Tuesday, Apple announced that it would officially, after so many years, discontinue the iPod Touch, which is the final iPod model to be sold, meaning officially open resales. iPod is officially dead.

S3: For the low, low price of 199. While supplies last, you can purchase that one final iPod.

S2: Honestly, I still remember it and I feel like I’m dating myself. I still remember around like the year that iPods got external speakers for the first time when you could play music out loud without headphones and how revolutionary that felt.

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S3: My first friend to get an iPod had the U2 one, which had the signatures of the band inscribed on the back of the case. God, I just remember wanting one so, so badly in middle school and my parents being like, absolutely not. Those classic kajillion dollars. And for Valentine’s Day, my family always did this cute thing where we would draw names and each make a valentine for whoever you got. And so that year, my sister made me an iPod out of Styrofoam, but did the, like, really brutal thing where she tracked down an apple box.

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S2: Oh, my God. Wow. At first I was like, this is so sweet. And I’m like, this is honestly shout out to your sister. That is divas. As a younger sister, I appreciate it.

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S3: Well, farewell, iPod. We knew you well. I feel like we should shed a tear.

S2: I mean, speaking of things that we should shed a tear for.

S3: Is this really how you’re going to make this this trance okay?

S2: Yeah. Mm hmm. Listen, it is what it is, because on today’s show, we are talking about the troubled teen industry. The tie is a loosely connected group of teen wilderness therapy programs. Therapy is in heavy quotes and therapeutic boarding schools that play Fast and Furious seven with the word therapy.

S3: For many people. Your introduction to these programs might have been through celebrity like, say, Paris Hilton or Bad Baby. But the troubled teen industry has recently also been gaining a lot of exposure on TikTok, where hashtags like hashtag troubled teen industry and hashtag breaking code silence, the latter of which is a hashtag affiliated with a nonprofit for survivors of the troubled teen industry are going viral.

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S4: Six years ago, I woke up in the hospital. It was still dark outside. Two strangers are standing over my bed. I’ve committed no crime. I’ve hurt nobody, and I am forced to comply and go with them.

S1: What I’m about to read is an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote in the second program I was held in in the troubled teen industry as a kid.

S5: Dear Mom and Dad.

S3: Today’s gone well. We’re having tomato soup for lunch.

S6: I’m starting to look at the positives about not going home after you went. I also am starting to recognize that everything is up in the air at this point therapeutically. They won’t let you know.

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S3: Combine those two hashtags have over 750 million views and for seemingly the first time, we’re seeing a kind of groundswell of survivors sharing their personal experiences and insights into this dangerous industry that, well, you’ll hear it straight from their mouths, does more harm than good.

S2: Later in the show, we will be talking to two of those survivors about their experiences in the troubled teen industry and why they took to Tik Tok to post their stories. We’ll also be discussing how Tik Tok, an app we rather famously think tends to do more harm than good, has somehow managed to maybe get something right.

S3: We’ll be back with all of that after a quick break.

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S2: And we are back in the wilderness. Madison, do you feel at home here?

S3: Please don’t weaponize my happy place.

S2: Like we said at the top of the show. Most people and by most people, I mean me. I will speak for myself who don’t personally know someone who has ended up in the troubled teen industry. Their first kind of interaction was probably Paris Hilton, detailing her experience in her 2020 documentary, The Real Paris Hilton on YouTube.

S1: We were building other camps, basically doing manual labor all day long. It was just constant yelling out like boot camp style. So I whispered to one of the girls like, Let’s get out of here tonight.

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S3: Like many of the teens who are sent away, Paris is parents, as she explains in this YouTube documentary, did so because they were concerned about her behavior. So things like staying out all night, partying in high school, drug and alcohol abuse. But what you really get from the documentary is how her parents felt this loss of control over their child. And they took extremely drastic and frankly, very expensive measures to try to force her to be compliant.

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S2: There are a lot of reasons that parents take these drastic measures. Some of the ones we hear from, some of the survivors we talked to and also some of the you’ll hear kind of often repeated on Tik Tok is things like suicidal ideation, self-harm. Coming out as queer, you name pretty much any semi rebellious teen behavior and you will find someone sent to wilderness therapy for it in.

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S3: Case it’s not already obvious. This is going to be kind of a dark one. So if any of those things are triggering for you, listen with caution.

S2: Before we get too far, we’re going to break down what exactly? Well, in this therapy is usual caveat that we always give. We’re a half hour podcast. We can’t talk about everything here because there is capital A, capital L. A lot. There are thousand dollar educational consultants. There’s legal kidnapping. There’s cults.

S3: Wilderness Clinical Therapy refers to these programs where teens are sent into the woods with a group of other teens and a few 20 somethings who are not trained in mental health professions.

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S2: The idea of wilderness therapy has a space as an Outward Bound, which is this outdoor education program that was founded in 1940s in Europe that takes teens into the wild for survival training and character development. You will find a lot of people who go to Outward Bound. It kind of fits into the Girl Scouts. Boy Scouts model of connect children with nature, and they’ll find the way.

S3: You nailed it. On my honor, I will try to find the way.

S2: And, you know, equipping teens with the ability to find the way. Sounds like a really noble goal, but in the context of wilderness therapy, it becomes incredibly warped. Most kids wilderness experience begins with being what is functionally legally kidnapped, transported anywhere from 3 hours away to across the country without any information given to them about where they’re going.

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S5: When I was awoken in the middle of the night by these two strangers who just they just walked in and they were like, all right, like you can choose the easy way or the hard way. And I was like in my PJs, and I was like, Can I put on pants? And they were like, No. And they kind of linked both of my arms, like, so I was between them and they, like, took me out of my house, down the stairs, out the front door, and their car was parked in my driveway and they put me in the back and they were like, Since you’re, like being so good and like not resisting, like, we won’t handcuff you, but like, we have we’re like allowed to restrain you. They started joking about how some kids.

S3: That was Kendee a tiktoker who goes by the handle at ww w dot Kendee Kendee tor.com. She’s been posting about her experience in wilderness since 2021 on Tik Tok. We talked to her about what it was like to be kidnapped or quote unquote gunned as it’s described by people who’ve lived it. So these are private companies that parents hire, and they usually cost between 2030 $500 on average, according to a 2020 high country news investigation. And that price is just from the moment of being woken up until you arrive at wilderness therapy and after that harrowing and expensive experience, Kenney said. Once she arrived at camp, she had no idea how long she would be trapped there.

S5: One of the first things that was said to me was like, Hey, like, how far away is that plane up in the sky? And I was like, I don’t know, like how high two planes fly. And they were just like, no, that plane is 8 to 12 weeks away. Like, you’re not going home for 8 to 12 weeks. And I was like, I was like, what?

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S2: So that lack of information is supposedly intended to help them. Heavy, heavy air quotes disconnect from the outside world. What that functionally means is these kids are not allowed to know what day it is, what month it is, what time it is, where they’re going. And that’s not just on the transport. That is, once they get to wilderness, where they’re usually there for about 8 to 12 weeks. And while they’re there, their communication to the outside world is severely restricted. And any communication they’re allowed to send to their parents is read over by the camp. The camp is also usually telling their parents that when their children tell them that they’re dirty and hungry and exhausted and have been kidnapped. By two men. That is because their kids are trying to manipulate their way back home. So these parents are actively being encouraged to not believe what their children are going through or to believe that it’s in their best interest.

S3: This is such a evil perversion of like fundamentally like things that are good for children developmentally, you know, unplugging, experiencing nature. However, that’s nothing like what is happening in wilderness therapy.

S5: So most days we would hike. So we would wake up and we would have to take apart the whole camp. Once we packed everything up, we would start hiking and the staff would receive coordinates from the office and we weren’t allowed to know like what they were or how far we were going. We were just told, like, you follow the stars and you just hike. And then once we got to our coordinates, we would set up our new camp, which would just mean like we would gather wood for a fire and put out our sleeping bags in a straight line. We called it sleep line so staff would be on either side, and that’s basically it. Your whole day was spent hiking and.

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S2: That was a typical day. Kendee also told us about her worst day, which happened to come the day before she ended up leaving.

S5: There was this hike. We got very, very lost. And then we just all slowly, one by one, ran out of water and then, like, we were, like giving each other like one drop. Like, oh, like, I still have this much water left. Like, let’s all share it, like, and then eventually just no one had water, and then the sun is like beating down on us. And we had been hiking since before the sun rose. So like four or 5 a.m. this other girl, like, collapsed and started screaming and she was like, I can’t see like my body’s shutting down. And then I started like digging like in the sand because it felt like a little bit damp, like down to like further down I would dig and and then like another girl started digging with me and we’re like, we can just dig to water. Like, it’s fine. Like, we were very delusional and, like, crying, and no tears were coming out because there was just no water in our bodies. And then I realized that I had a raw onion, like in my food bag. And so I ate this raw onion, like, crying while I’m eating it. And in the moment it was the best thing in the world. And everyone else was like, That’s disgusting. And I’m like, I’m so thirsty. That was just like really, really, really bad. And it was like, I’ll never forget, like, the feeling of, like, being that thirsty. Like, I hope I never have to feel that again.

S2: All I could think about when she was telling us this is nobody period should ever be subjected to this. No child should ever have to deal with anything like this in the name of their mental health.

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S3: Kendee, in some very twisted way, was actually kind of lucky because when she was done with wilderness therapy, she was sent home. Most kids, their stories don’t end there. According to that same 2020 high country news investigation, about 80% of children who go to wilderness therapy then go on to what’s called a, quote unquote, therapeutic boarding school. It’s basically a residential treatment center. Kendee family didn’t send her to that next step because it was too expensive.

S2: According to the Envoy Group, which is an organization that’s meant to help families navigate this industry, the average wilderness program costs around $30,000 and as we said last, about 8 to 12 weeks. Therapeutic boarding school, which is the next step, cost on average $4,500 a month for 9 to 18 months. It works out to about 40000 to $81000. And unlike some other traditional.

S3: Real.

S2: Studied mental health services, because wilderness therapy and therapeutic boarding schools aren’t considered evidence based treatment, they’re not covered by most insurance carriers.

S3: And the money isn’t just coming out of parents pockets. According to breaking code silence, the troubled teen industry receives just an astronomical amount of public funding. Which, you know, interesting, given that this is an industry that operates with little to almost no regulation.

S2: And according to breaking code silence, quote, the industry’s lack of transparency and quality care has resulted in sexual assault, physical and medical neglect and bodily assault, civil rights violations, hospitalizations and hundreds of documented deaths. The long and short of that means that parents are paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to subject their children to what survivors are calling abuse.

S3: That includes Daniel Stern’s a tiktoker who says his parents paid over $100,000 to send him to wilderness therapy and boarding school after that. Daniel posts under the handle at Daniel the Mammal. He’s an activist who says that talking about the troubled teen industry is the only way to make sure what happened to him never happens to other kids.

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S2: More on that after the break.

S3: Hi, everybody. Hope you’re enjoying today’s show. If this is your first time listening. Welcome. We’re thrilled to have you here. And I promise it’s not always this heavy. In case you missed it. Yes, at it. Our show comes out twice a week on Wednesdays and Saturdays. So make sure you never miss an episode like this past Wednesday’s, which was an interview with the voice of Tick Tock and I the asshole economy. It’s very fun, I promise. And only a little gross.

S2: And we’re back with therapeutic boarding schools. About 80% of the kids who are going through the experience can be talked about in wilderness therapy. They go straight into one of these boarding schools, usually without any real chance to touch down on their home. So it’s just this kind of continued onslaught of displacement. And according to survivors like Daniel, a lot of these therapeutic boarding schools function in much the same way as wilderness therapy does, as in without any real oversight.

S4: We attended school three days a week for about 3 hours a day. And the rest of the time that we were there, we labored to chop wood all day, or we would dig stumps out of the ground with little plastic shovel all day. We didn’t have any maintenance. No, nobody was cleaning the land. It was all that.

S3: The school that Daniel went to has since been shut down. And there are allegations of abuse against its founder. But both Daniel and Kennedy told us that the effects of their experiences have stayed with them. And also, there are plenty of programs, including the one Kennedy went to, that are still up and running.

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S5: Some people like have been reaching out to me since I’ve been posting about it and they’re like, I went there like more recently. I just got out of there like this year or like last year. And these are like young kids. It is still operational and I don’t think it should be. But hopefully, like the kids that are there now are having an easier time than I had in 2016.

S2: Both Daniel and Candy got out of the troubled teen industry around 2015, 2016, 2017, which is very recent. But it’s even more recently that they’ve kind of discovered a community of other kids like them.

S4: My best friend from high school and I had made like a funny TEDx talk, joking about some of the weird things we saw there. And I had an Amanda Householder who’s kind of a big name in the anti TGIF. She had, like, commented on my video. I see Survivor. I’m like, what is this? You know, what does that mean? And then I looked into it and start learning and start reading. I was like, Oh, my God, this is really, really, really, really, really wrong. Like, I should not have been through this.

S5: And I posted like maybe two or three videos and became like some like minimal traction or whatever. But these other, like, survivors were reaching out to me and like following me and they were commenting like, I see you, Survivor. And I was like, what does that mean? Like. Like, oh, there are more people who’ve experienced this that are talking about it.

S2: I see you. Survivor is one of the most common comments you’ll see on the hundreds, if not thousands, at this point of videos under the troubled teen industry or breaking cold silence hashtag on Tik Tok. As we said at the top, these hashtags combined now have over 750 million views on them, and videos under the hashtags include those like Kennedy’s, where she read through the records as she requested from her wilderness program.

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S5: So they ask her parents to write a letter explaining how your actions impacted them, and they have to list all the reasons why they sent you. So I’ll share that with you guys now. Driving without a license, stealing car, running away to another state, taking Ritalin, flying, posting rants online about driving recklessly, about messing up your life, about being high. That was my finsta. I was posting on my fence hanging around more and more often with a girl who I believe is bad news. Flash about influence. Shout out Bobby asking to be checked into a mental hospital. I mean, I wanted help. Just not this kind of help.

S3: There are videos from Paris Hilton and Bad Baby who if that name doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps the phrase catch me outside will jog your memory. According to Daniel, TikTok has been a huge boon for survivors to find each other, to realize that they’re not alone, and to organize for change in an industry that has largely been kept hidden from public view since its inception.

S4: I have so many opportunities that come my way because I refuse to shut up. And that’s such a such a great feeling. And it’s kind of like stick it to the man. They just wanted us to be so quiet and so small. And now it’s like, screw you, like we’re going to talk about as we can until people wake up a little bit.

S2: If you haven’t been listening to I see why my for the year and change we’ve been going we spend a lot of time basically shitting on Tik Tok as an app.

S3: Actually it does some good stuff, but mostly it’s a true crime nightmare.

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S2: And to be fair, we don’t do shit on Tik Tok. We sit on every single social media platform because they’re all run by billionaires who have no concern for public safety.

S3: We constructively criticize with years of research and experience to back us up.

S2: Which only makes the fact that we are pointing out something that is unequivocally good happening on the platform even more. Credible. But I think what’s most fascinating to me, and maybe this is true for using Madison, but after spending so much time online, most of which were in my teen years, mostly in spaces that are dictated by teen interests, I had never really seen any real like testimony or narratives about this experience. And Tick Tock was one of the first places that I’ve seen this happen in a really kind of concerted way. In some ways, it feels like all the things that we hate to talk for are the things that are making this specific experience go viral in a way that is objectively helpful.

S3: I’m thinking about how, for example, the tick tock algorithm loves consistency. They love a shtick. They love people who post over and over about the same thing because that’s, you know, it makes it easier to spot a trend, which is what these survivors are doing. So the algorithm knows knows how to build on that.

S2: There’s also the fact that in a lot of my research, even in a lot of the testimony of the survivors we spoke to, most of the people in the troubled teen industry are white, and that makes sense just based on economics. It’s incredibly expensive to go to these programs or be sent to these programs. Someone in the High Country News article that we mentioned who was a counselor at one of these camps, mentioned that most of the kids that she was overseeing were from wealthy families. But as we know, the tick tock algorithm loves to prioritize white people staring straight to the camera. And that is a lot of what the videos are under the troubled teen industry hashtag.

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S3: I just keep thinking I hope these videos land on for you pages of parents, frankly. Right. Because I have zero tolerance for somebody who’s trying to scare the gay out of their child. But I do believe that probably not an insignificant number of these parents sent their kids to these programs because they were genuinely afraid for their children’s safety and lives and didn’t know what to do. And they were lied to. They got hoodwinked, too.

S2: Yeah. I mean, we didn’t get into the educational consulting of it all, but a lot of parents are being told that this is what their kids need. Something that also kind of strikes me as why this is perfect for tick tock or maybe Tick Tock is perfect for this, is that if there’s one thing the gap loves, it’s true crime and the kind of harrowing experience that a lot of these kids have gone through presents the same. I don’t like the word appeal, but it’s the same appeal of true crime. But for me, without any of the kind of ickiness that comes along with true crime, because it is people talking about their own experiences, choosing to share their own experiences within this industry, rather than someone who’s completely divorced from the person at the heart of the story, choosing to just say, Here’s what I think about why Gabby Potato’s in Mexico.

S3: Going through the hashtag. Actually, I was thinking about West Elm Club, which hear me out just in that the similarities between each survivor telling their story are are similar obviously, but in a way that convinces the app that this is a thing, that this is a trend and it makes it easier to mobilize an outside audience against a thing. And in this case, that thing is very much justified.

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S2: And I think more than anything, hearing survivors like Candy and Daniel talk specifically about how Tick Tock has been helpful to them is what is ultimately made me think, hey, maybe Tick Tock actually can be used for something good.

S4: Being a little kid trying to get through this, I just never, ever, ever in a million years could have even pictured other people hearing about this and like, wanting to do something about it over the last few years. Tick tock is not just been like tick tock. It’s been a way to find other people and a way for other people to find their their selves as well. Through what I’m saying and knowing that it’s like such a big gift to me because every person that messages me, I went through the same thing I didn’t really understand. Now I kind of get it. Every time that happens, it’s like it brings up the same feeling of like. Like when my school got shut down and there was, like, some sense of justice.

S3: Once again, that was Daniel Stern’s. And we want to take a moment to thank him. And Candy, who you heard from earlier in the show for bravely sharing their stories with us. If you are a child being abused or know a child being abused called child help, the National Child Abuse Hotline at one 800 4224453. But. All right, that’s the episode. We will be back in your feed on Wednesday. Please subscribe. It is the best way to make sure that you never miss an episode. Please leave us a rating and review an Apple or Spotify and tell your friends about us. We’d love it if you followed us on Twitter. We are at see why am I underscore pod. We also love when you email us. I see why I’m at Slate.com. We genuinely do read every damn an email and I don’t know what’s in the air right now. Maybe it’s pollen, but all of your ideas have been excellent, so keep them coming.

S2: I see why. Myles produced by Daniel Schroeder. Madison Malone Kircher and me Rachel Hansen. Alisha Montgomery is Slate’s vice president of Audio.

S3: See online or in a jar of old iPods. The tie.

S2: Not the tie. 84 which is a calculator.

S3: And not tie.