There used to be a brand of Hollywood movie where the busy, self-absorbed mother was switched into the body of their teenage child, and taught a lesson in the process. They don’t make those films anymore because any self-absorbed mother like me can inhabit the life of their child without a movie or magic: I just logged on to social media as “Harry”, not “Helen”, and said I was 15 years old.

Instantly, I was ejected from my cozy social media landscape, a throw-cushioned nook of Instagram where I am ruthlessly upsold “miracle” cream for tired eyes. Under my new login, my YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat feeds were swapped for the inside of a boy’s bedroom, the virtual walls plastered with football heroes. Was this spicy aroma of astro-boots, diesel and gaming chair masking the stink of misogyny? “Bro,” headlined a typical video, “what if our parents knew how we act at school?”

All right, so this can feel creepy. But I had my reasons. I’m a parent, aunt and godmother to many teenagers, and their social media stars live rent-free in our house. You may never have heard of the young, male, mostly British YouTube millionaires who go under pseudonyms like KSI, the Sidemen, Beta Squad, MrBeast (a 24-year-old American with a record 116 million YouTube subscribers) or ChrisMD. These men, and the teenage boy fans who make them so rich, largely avoid newspapers, TV and radio. They exist in a huge online locker room: wildly lucrative, influential and hidden.

Then in strutted Andrew Tate, the British-American vlogging phenomenon and recruiter of teenage boys to his Hustler’s University. If a girlfriend dared accuse Tate of cheating, he said on video: “It’s bang out the machete, boom in her face and grip her by the neck.” Tate is imprisoned in Romania on charges of rape and human trafficking, which means parents and teachers have finally woken up to him and British schools are selling out courses on tackling Tate-style toxic masculinity in teenage boys. But that misses the point. Tate was a symptom, like a genital wart, not the transmissible disease. The disease is the algorithm.

While on the way through a kitchen full of my teenage son’s friends, I heard them discussing something. One was scrolling his Snapchat Spotlight (a video feed similar to TikTok) for epic football goals when an odd video appeared. I took a look: it was a young male comedian on the London Tube, larking about with his (consensual) girlfriend, showing ways to get “upskirt” videos. The joke had a bitter tang. “You know that’s illegal in real life,” I said. My son’s friend replied: “I was only looking for goals.” I believed him. I was going in.

Setting up fake accounts is the only way to understand the algorithm. Even the people who make the algorithm do it. The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen disclosed that in 2019, for example, Facebook researchers set up an account for the fictional Trump-supporting “Carol” to see how long it would take her to be pushed towards the conspiracy group QAnon. Answer: two days. That’s slow by 2023 standards.

They exist in a huge online locker room: wildly lucrative, influential and hidden.

Imran Ahmed is the chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British-American nonprofit organization. Ahmed’s researchers have set up countless “teenage” profiles to study the effect of the algorithm. For “13-year-old girl” accounts on TikTok it took an average of 2.6 minutes to be served suicide content and eight minutes for self-harm videos. “The one question the algorithm is asking is: how do I addict this person?” Ahmed said.

YouTube is, according to the Pew Research Center last year, the No 1 social media site for teenage boys in America, with 35 percent of all teenagers saying they use social media “almost constantly”. I look first at the grid of videos offered on my own YouTube home page. Here is a range of the subjects from first to last: the 1921 census, Pachelbel’s Canon, Ricky Gervais, Fred Astaire and a rescue dog story. It basically assumes I’m on my deathbed, wishing for a last look at a vanishing world.

The misogynist social-media influencer and founder of Hustlers University, Andrew Tate.

But for “Harry”, with only three points of data — his name, date of birth and my computer IP address — things are more lively. There is the “best and worst Sidemen jokes” (a sample, “condoms, those are for pussies”); Joe Rogan, the American podcast host for the “bros”; Jake Paul, the American YouTuber and boxer; KSI; Jeremy Clarkson; some football clips; and two videos featuring Andrew Tate. Taking a first click is like a newborn baby’s first breath in this airless world: the algorithm begins. Watching the first Tate video is like doing battle with a hydra: two more appear in its place.

Teenage-boy YouTube is way funnier than mine, often joyful. It lives off “bantz” via pranks, games and boxing or football face-offs. Instead of the party game of “snog, marry, avoid”, the Sidemen play a version with other YouTubers, to “collab, fight or cancel” (translation: a joint music or video project, or a boxing match, or else). That’s Year Ten energy I guess, but also, Ahmed tells me, humor is a tool to have it both ways: be offensive and have deniability from the offense — “humor is a very effective defense mechanism against moderation”.

Within minutes “Harry” is suggested a video from a British vlogger who goes by the name of HSTikkyTokky, real name Harrison Sullivan, 20. Sullivan targets most of his content at TikTok or Twitch, the live stream service. He is still small fry, but seems to be building a brand on repartee from a 1970s working men’s club. In a video of him being arrested on a night out in Oxford (he was later cleared), he declares while being loaded into the police van: “I’ve got nothing on me apart from my nine-inch wood.” The policeman wearily remarks, as Sullivan’s friend films, “You must make boring videos.” Actually this video was viewed more than three quarters of a million times on YouTube alone.

Sullivan calls women his “tings” (things) and “sluts”, and shows videos of women in thongs saying, “No sukky, no tikkytokky.” On Twitch he picks up women under videos titled “Tate Game”, or holds a conversation with an unwitting girl while filming her cleavage. Sullivan has a video on TikTok with him hoofing a football, apparently in response to his critics: “I’m a misogynist with a f***ing good left foot, though.” At one point last year YouTube suspended Sullivan from live videos for what it deemed “hateful behavior”. Sullivan’s reaction video is livid, saying women get an easier deal: “You let your tings shake their batty [bum] about like it’s nothing.”

Teenage-boy YouTube is way funnier than mine.

When I ask a group of teenage boys about HSTikkyTokky they say it’s “misogynist, but funny”; I could never imagine them saying something is “racist, but funny”. Sullivan does it with a wink, they believe, an exaggerated comedic creation. In this world, the superstar boxer and singer KSI (real name JJ Olatunji) and his male friendship group the Sidemen (there are too many of them to mention), along with ChrisMD (Chris Dixon), a lovely football-based YouTuber, are the relatively benign older brothers. They are each powerful, a decade into their careers in their mid-to-late twenties, with many millions of subscribers. In a football video featuring the Sidemen and ChrisMD, HSTikkyTokky’s name came up. ChrisMD said “misogynist” and I practically cheered.

But it’s all relative. One of my first suggested Sidemen videos is “real-life Tinder” in which the group of KSI and his Sidemen all line up to talk graphically, often insultingly, to a single woman standing alone in their studio: the most acceptable example is “You’re worthless”, the least a joke with the punch line “beat your pussy”. KSI, 29, issued a public apology in 2015 for videos he filmed as a teenager that showed him pulling his “rape face” for laughs — “I fully regret it,” he said. KSI has tried to remove all his “rape face” videos from YouTube, but users keep reloading them. He went online to beg them to stop; they are still getting views and comments as of this year.

When I create my new TikTok account as a teenage boy, the algorithm is even more sensitive than YouTube’s. In the first minutes of my scrolling it believes “Harry” is a teenage girl. I know this because I am fed endless CapCut templates to make my own TikToks (if you make your own videos you are more likely to dwell longer online). “Helen” has, rightly, never been encouraged to do this. But it seems to detect that I am female, despite my best efforts. So I sit down with some teenage boys to get advice.

Apparently I am lingering even a millisecond too long on kitten videos. “NO KITTENS!” they shout as my feed gets noisier and faster. Within minutes they say the algorithm is serving me their familiar diet, but something strange also happens. The football and pranks are sandwiched with “issue”-heavy speeches on gender roles, such as a young Christian woman arguing that wives are happier being dominated. I ask Ahmed what’s going on. I don’t remember boys my age being hooked by “men’s studies”.

“No, you are absolutely right,” Ahmed says. “But teenage boys are interested in identity. And there is this crucial window between 14 and 24 when you are not being socialized by parents or partners, but by your peers. Social media is stepping in to be that peer group, but one which is very stylized.”

In its mission to be an “addiction machine”, the algorithm has learned that people don’t keep lingering on football videos (or any benign equivalent) because they eventually get sated. Instead it has learned that challenging political views lead us down time-consuming rabbit holes. So the algorithm will keep using edgy beliefs to hook teenage boys to the site, Ahmed says, which is amplified by the “peer” effect of young male content creators acting as virtual “older brothers”. This is how Tate and so many like him have earned the social media behemoths so much money, Ahmed says: “Controversial stuff draws you to keep searching out more and more content.”

Sure enough, I am soon fed a video from Cole Anderson (two million TikTok followers), a comedy sketch titled “Watching Andrew Tate Around Girls” in which boys have to conceal how amusing they find Tate. When I like this, it leads to Anderson’s friend, a young British TikTokker called Jack Joseph (3.6 million followers). I find Joseph’s sketches genuinely funny, while also noting the casual way he calls women “sluts” (and the synonym “skets”). I start to like the charismatic Joseph and catch myself defending him to women in the office. “Yeah, he calls women ‘sluts’, but so does everyone.” It’s only been a few days and I have already changed.

It wasn’t like “Harry” was served anything — Tate aside — violent or pornographic. It was more that the mood felt retrograde: a casual denigration of women I remember from my own childhood. I wasn’t spying on the private wants of young men, I was spying as a machine intelligence snatched their wants, shined them up with a spit of old-fashioned sexism and sold them back tenfold. Ahmed recommends every parent does this kind of Freaky Friday social media swap, or at least spend time scrolling with their teenager.

“Imagine a drug designed just for you that, every time you took it, filled the gaps in your soul, the ultimate dopamine machine. How much would you pay for that?” Ahmed says. “But here’s the problem: the drug has side-effects, like persuading boys that they cannot have a relationship with a woman that isn’t based on physical dominance. If that was a product you would rush to stop it, like something’s gone wrong with society.”

It was interesting to see that mothers are not ignored in this world. In fact, we get a flattering number of references. For example, on a “Sidemen Blind Date” video, a girl asks where one of the Sidemen would take her on a date. “To the wet coast of your mother’s vagina,” he answers. “Why did you say that?” the girl queries, baffled. “Funny, isn’t it?” the man replies as his friends cackle. I look up from my phone across the kitchen at teenage children on their phones and realize it’s time for me to go home.

Helen Rumbelow is a political correspondent for The Times of London