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How TikTok's Coverage Of Amber Heard & Johnny Depp Radicalizes Young People Against Women

Photo: di Bronzino, Andrea Raffin, & Tinseltown / Shutterstock 
Johnny Depp with halo, Amber Heard with devil horns

It might surprise you to learn that your teenager has an opinion about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. 

It definitely surprised me. After all, Johnny Depp is 58 years old. The last time he was considered a teen heart throb was during the Bush Administration — The George Herbert Walker Bush Administration. 

Beyond the vague recognition that he played Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, I didn't think Johnny Depp was on the minds of today's teens. And he wasn't, until now.

TikToks about his case are amassing more than 20 million views in just a few days, most of which seem to mock Heard as she cries or make a hero out of Depp.

But this isn't just another messy celeb divorce where people pick sides.

The lessons our teens are learning from this case are about abuse, sexual violence and addiction. They're also lessons in how society reacts when a woman comes forward about abuse. 

RELATED: A Couples Therapist Explains How Johnny Depp & Amber Heard's Traumatic Childhoods May Have Triggered Mutual Abuse

Johnny Depp and Amber Heard's history is complicated, as are their multiple lawsuits. 

The tl;dr version is that their marriage was very troubled and everyone around them seemed to know it. After they broke up, she wrote an article about her experience with an abusive partner, and while it didn't name Depp, the public assumed it was about him.

Both Heard and Depp have been accused of intimate partner violence

A case in the UK found that Depp abused Heard on 12 different occasions.

According to an overview on Vox, "In the UK trial, Heard submitted witness testimony; contemporaneous text messages, emails, and diary entries; and photographs of her bruises. Taken together, they demonstrated a clear pattern of abuse, most often when Depp was under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In order to fake them, Heard would have had to spend years plotting to besmirch Depp’s name. (He claims she did.)" 

Heard has also been accused of intimate partner violence by an ex-girlfriend of hers in the past. There also appears to be recorded evidence of Heard admitting to striking Depp on at least one occasion. 

Fast-forward to today, where both are suing one another for defamation. As a result, uncomfortable, embarrassing, and even traumatic details of their life together are being made public.

From Heard's allegations that Depp sexually assaulted her to Depp's allegations that Heard physically assaulted him (and every disturbing detail in-between), this trial is the perfect example of a situation where nobody is a winner.

Despite the fact that TikTokers are trying to make this trial seem funny, it's all just a lot of suffering. 

RELATED: Starbucks Drive-Thru Workers Under Fire Over Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard Tip Jars

On social media, Depp is portrayed as a hero and Heard is mocked as the villain

Young people on social media are declaring themselves "Team Johnny" and calling Amber Heard a liar. I don't know if she's a liar or not, but a problem often arises when one person becomes Villian #1 in a national news story — all nuance is lost.

Once you think you know who the bad guy is, you start ignoring facts. That's when a hero is made of someone who probably doesn't deserve the title.

For instance, I recently heard a teen girl say Johnny Depp is "hot." I then read a comment from a teen girl calling him "sexy." This about a man who is older than their parents and has admitted that he was actively engaged in drug and alcohol abuse during fights with his wife, and that he wrote on the walls of their home with his fingers in blood and paint. 

But what upset me most was overhearing a teenage boy proudly say, "Amber Heard is a lying b*tch." He said it out loud, knowing adults were listening.  

Given what we know about this case, the near-fetishization of Depp — and the resulting demonization of Heard — are disturbing repercussions.

If even a small fraction of what Amber Heard is saying is true, vilifying her while elevating Depp is horrific.

RELATED: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard & The Myth Of The 'Perfect Victim'

Teenagers are intrigued by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard

For some reason, this case has captured the attention of young people on social media — and they're being exposed to lies, manipulations and oversimplifications that become "universal truths" in their minds. The more content they watch about the trial, the more content they are shown about it — and the content becomes more and more biased in one direction.

This case is an opportunity to teach our kids crucial life lessons

These videos present us with an opportunity to talk to our teens. Not just about compassion for others, relationships, abuse and celebrity, but also about the harm that can be done when we allow media of any form to portray complicated issues as simple and one-sided. 

While this list is in no way exhaustive, I'm sharing a few of the reasons I'm talking to my kids about this case, and a few tips for how to do so. 

RELATED: 7 Abusive Things Amber Heard Is Accused Of Doing To Johnny Depp

6 essential conversations to have with teens who are following the Depp/Heard trial

1. Don't believe everything you see online. 

Most teenagers think they already know this. They know that extremists will use social media to manipulate people, and they certainly know about "fake news." 

But have they practiced figuring out why someone would present a biased perspective on a case like this? 

It's important to talk about who gains from promoting any biased perspective. In this case, there are a few men who want to undermine the progress made by women toward holding abusive men accountable for their crimes. 

Accusing a woman of lying is the most effective tactic of anti-women groups. It works well to keep women quiet, after all.

"You're lying" is what women of my generation and many before faced when we considered speaking up about sexual assault or abuse. Most of the time, we didn't have objective "proof" — especially before we had cell phones with cameras and records of text messages, and knowing that we might be called liars kept us quiet.

The people calling Amber Heard a liar want her — and other victims — to be quiet.

They don't actually care about Johnny Depp as an individual. They care that they have a national platform to talk about how women lie about abuse and sexual assault so that every time any of us come forward as victims, they will have a name to throw in our faces. 

"She was a liar. So are you."

Maybe she did make up some or all of the stuff about Johnny (though it seems unlikely given the depth and breadth of evidence and testimony she has against him), but the sheer delight the public has taken in calling her a liar without any evidence illustrates that she speaks to something much deeper than just this case. 

And that's what we need to talk through with our teens: That propaganda has a purpose. It has a goal. Even when it's set to a popular TikTok song or has a Kim Kardashian gif overlaying it, the propaganda surrounding this case has a goal — to silence women. 

2. Men can be victims, too.

As I've tried to state again and again, we don't objectively know who the victim is in this case or who is most to blame. Regardless, this story is an opportunity to talk to our teens about the fact that men can be victims of relationship violence and even sexual assault. 

Regardless of "who started it," Johnny Depp was in a relationship that seemed to be riddled with abusive dynamics. It was incredibly unhealthy, no matter what perspective you're viewing it from. 

The objective truth to be gained here is that there are men who are victims of abuse at the hands of their partners, both men and women. In fact, many teen boys report being in relationships where they feel emotionally controlled by their partners, afraid to break up with them despite wanting to, and some even report being physically harmed or sexually assaulted by partners.

This is an opportunity to turn the focus away from the "he said, she said" of this case, and turn it toward talking about how abusive relationships start, why they are often alluring, signs that a relationship is abusive, and what to do if you find yourself in that situation. 

We can also take the opportunity to talk to our kids about how to avoid becoming abusive partners themselves. 

RELATED: Psychologist In Amber Heard & Johnny Depp Trial Slammed For Implying That All Abuse Victims Are Female

3. People learn who you are from the things you say.

When I heard the teen boy say, "Amber Heard is a lying b*tch," I had a visceral reaction. My skin flushed, adrenaline rushed through my body, and I felt like I was being choked. 

Despite being a grown woman in a safe situation, those words brought me back to being a teenager and the shame and danger I experienced every single day surrounded by boys in the hallways of our junior high and high school who groped us, snapped our bra straps and grabbed or slapped our butts with absolute impunity.

It wasn't just me, it was dozens of girls, and it happened to us for years. 

If we told them to stop it, they'd call us "b*tches" or "sl*ts" and remind us that we had no proof. They'd remind us that everyone would say we were liars. 

That was the culture of being a teen girl in the 80s and 90s. There was no recourse for what was considered "boys will be boys" behavior. Hearing that teen boy call Amber Heard a b*tch brought me right back there, despite it being something I rarely think about anymore. 

But this isn't about me. Yes, I was upset hearing that come out of his mouth, but I handled it. 

The lesson for our teens is that you never know who you're hurting when you call someone a b*tch or say you don't believe a victim. 

There may be people around you who hear you say that and think to themselves, "Now I know I can't trust him" or "This is proof that nobody would believe me if I told the truth about what happened to me," or even, "This is a guy who really doesn't like women."

It doesn't matter if you are the nicest teen boy or girl in the world. It doesn't matter what your intentions are when you say something. Your words represent who you are to the world, so you should be extra sure you understand the implications of what you say or share about this case — or any sexual assault or violence case. 

4. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.

Most of us teach our kids to share their opinions openly and to speak up when they see something bad happening. 

These are great lessons.

But most of us (myself included!) have neglected teaching our kids about the times it's better to be quiet or non-committal. 

You may sit down with your teenager and talk through everything with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard and decide there is a stance to be taken. Or you may decide, as I have, that my stance is "I really don't know what happened."

Either way, it's a great opportunity to talk about the times when it's better to say nothing — or to say something non-committal.

Not every story in the news needs us to add our voices, nor is every story clear enough for us to take a strong stance on without risking being wrong in a way that hurts people. 

Sometimes, it's OK to focus on what you know and just go with that.

Arming a teen with a line like, "The only thing I know is that nobody should have to be in a relationship where they don't feel safe," can help them get out of an awkward situation while teaching them to find a truth they can actually stand by. 

RELATED: Can We Protect Our Kids From Abusive Relationships? Gabby Petito's Murder Makes Me Want To Try

5. Any relationship can become abusive. 

This case has teens thinking about abuse, so it's a great time to remind them that abusive relationships rarely (if ever) start out abusive. They usually start out happy, wonderful, romantic, sexy and loving.

Signs will appear, usually within a few months, that the relationship is unhealthy. Controlling behavior, loud arguments, insults and other degrading language, using guilt to manipulate a partner, and low-key or implied threats of violence are often early precursors to physical or psychological abuse. 

It's not just "bad guys" or "crazy women" who become abusive. It can be someone who seems super sweet at first. It can even be a movie star. That's what makes it so hard to leave.

Your kids should know that no matter what, they can come to you for help and that you will support them in the ways they need. Take the opportunity to tell them you won't judge them or shame them for needing help or even just for advice about how to have a healthy relationship. 

6. Love can't solve every problem. 

It's important that teenagers know that you can't change a troubled person, no matter how much you love them and you can't turn an abusive relationship into a healthy one, no matter how much an abuser may try to convince you that you can. 

Teens should know that they may find themselves in a relationship with a person who has a substance use disorder, and that is OK. But they need to be told that nobody can love someone enough to get them to change harmful behavior or to stop using drugs. They may choose to stand by them and support them through treatment, but they are the only ones who can actually "get better."

Kids need to know that when it comes to mental health challenges or substance abuse, it's their partner's work to get better, not theirs. 

RELATED: Why Amber Heard's Sister 'Begged' Her Not To Marry Johnny Depp

Joanna Schroeder is a writer and media critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times and more. She is co-author of Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers, published by The Western States Center. Follow her on Twitter or check out her website for more.

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