There’s a video on Emily Harper’s TikTok page that, in the thumbnail, looks like any other makeup tutorial. But when you open it, you’ll hear the L.A.-based makeup artist talking about the three-year trauma she endured at a boot camp for “troubled teens.” “When I was 15, my parents ambushed me and drove me all the way to Alabama from Wisconsin in the middle of the night,” says Harper. “When we arrived from our drive in the morning, they brought me to this super remote location and dropped me off at my new home. I was told I’d be staying for the duration of 15 months, but I ended up staying for close to three years.”
On arrival, Harper says she was separated from her parents, before being strip-searched and forced to try on every item of clothing she brought “to make sure it was up to the dress code.” “It was so embarrassing,” she continues. In the rest of the short clip, Harper talks about the 30-page rulebook she was instructed to read, which contained three pages of “disciplines you could receive if you disobeyed.” She recalls having to do an hour of outdoor cleaning work after leaving a sock on the floor, and having to write 75 paragraphs as a punishment for “unholy conversation.”
Harper’s story is one of many on TikTok. In fact, the hashtag #TroubleTeenIndustry has 337 million views. Over the last year or so, more and more young people have taken to the app to tell their harrowing teenage tales of being abruptly awoken in the middle of the night — sometimes by their parents, but others were “legally kidnapped” by strangers — and shipped off to wilderness “therapy” camps. There, they say, they were “deprived of clean drinking water,” allowed just 15-minute phone calls with their parents each week — which were allegedly eavesdropped on by the staff, who also read every letter they wrote home — and forced to smile in photos, so their parents would think they were having a good time.
It’s difficult to verify some of these claims, and others seem somewhat unrealistic — Harper’s “nighttime” drive from Alabama to Wisconsin would take at least 14 hours, for example — but the sheer volume of these reports suggests there’s something insidious happening.
In photos shared by TikTokers, the teens can be seen camping in remote locations, making fires and doing manual labor. Most of them discuss the traumatic impact the camps had on them both at the time, and later in their lives — one TikToker named Daniel labels it “an abusive, involuntary, ‘therapeutic’ program.” He goes on to share photos of himself at Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness in Georgia — he also shares the stories of other “troubled teens” — and alleges that he was “starved and unable to take a shower for months.” “The 18 months I spent away at 15 years old was the most traumatic period of time in my life,” he continues. Many of the videos are posted alongside the hashtag #ISeeYouSurvivor and #BreakingCodeSilence.
The influx of TikTok videos about these abusive camps follow years of reporting about the dangers of the troubled-teen industry, which Rolling Stone previously reported generates $1.2 billion a year, and takes in tens of thousands of teens at any given time. In an interview with the publication, one camp survivor recalls being put to work on a ranch, clearing land, chopping firewood or building miles of fence. “And then they’d say, ‘Everybody put your tools down, it’s time to run up and down the mountain, 10 fucking times with a 20 pound rock in your hand.’ And then it was back to work. That’s all we did, run and work,” the boy said.
In 2020, Paris Hilton brought further mainstream press attention to the industry when she spoke out about her teenage experience of abuse at Provo Canyon School in Utah — a psychiatric youth residential center — in her documentary, This is Paris. Hilton describes being restrained, involuntarily medicated and locked in solitary confinement.
According to Rolling Stone, in the 15 years up to 2015, 86 kids died in troubled teen programs, with 10 dying in wilderness camps specifically, most because of “starvation, exposure to the elements or pressing medical needs that went ignored.”
Over the last few years, following the increased denunciation of the industry, laws were passed in several states to give authorities more oversight over what happens at these camps, as well as demanding that programs be more transparent, and banning things like straightjackets and mechanical restraints. Lawsuits have also been filed by those who were subjected to these programs — some even accuse the industry of sexual, physical and mental abuse, as well as potential human trafficking. Last year, Dr. Phil and CBS were sued after a teenager who appeared on the show was pressured into seeking treatment at one of these facilities, where she alleges she was then sexually assaulted.
By speaking out about their experiences on TikTok, these young troubled teen survivors hope they’ll prevent other kids from going through what they went through, and eradicate this “teens for profit” industry. “We’ve kept the troubled-teen industry safe and guarded for the last 80 years,” Daniel says in one of his videos, “but if there’s one thing that I can do in my 80 years, it’ll be watching this industry become what we all deserved — what our kids deserve.”
“I can’t change my past,” the video’s caption reads, “but we can change their future.”