Much has been written about TikTok being a threat to US national security. But does TikTok pose a threat to users and their privacy? With children as young as nine using TikTok, concerns have been raised as to the safety of TikTok for young users.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a free phone-based social media app that lets you watch, create and share videos with others. Initially TikTok was mainly used by youngsters to post short videos of themselves lip‑syncing and dancing to their favorite songs. Now it’s also used to post anything from short comedy skits, to people completing challenges or just youngsters being silly.
TikTok is hugely popular with users aged between 16 and 24 but a rapidly growing number of children under the age of 16 have also started using the app. TikTok, whose parent company is the Chinese Company ByteDance, purportedly has 500 million users worldwide. It has been suggested that TikTok’s popularity with this age group stems from its video-only interface, making it easier to use than platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.
Dangers of TikTok for Young Users
The app has recently been swamped by claims that it is being used by pedophiles to contact children online, thus raising fears as to the safety of TikTok for young users. A 3-month investigation led by the BBC collected hundreds of sexual comments posted by online predators on videos uploaded by teenagers and children as young as nine.
Furthermore, the BBC investigation found that TikTok did not close the accounts of people sending sexual messages to children. The BBC report states: “While the company deleted the majority of these comments when they were reported, most users who posted them were able to remain on the platform, despite TikTok’s rules against sexual messages directed at children.”
As well as sexual messages, some of which were very explicit, children have also received aggressive direct messages. Moreover, during the investigation the BBC came across misogynistic, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic messages. These messages, although not necessarily directed at children, are nonetheless accessible and read by children using TikTok.
Even setting aside these disturbing findings, it still might not be appropriate for children to use TikTok on their own, since many popular music videos include swearing and sexual lyrics. Also, it isn’t hard to find people wearing revealing clothing and dancing suggestively on TikTok.
How to Keep Young Users Safe on TikTok
Earlier this year, TikTok received a $5.7 m fine in the US for child online privacy violations due to children under the age of 13 using the app. Since then TikTok has introduced a restricted mode for children under 13, which provides them only with access to clean videos and does not allow them to search or post videos. However, if your child is setting up their own account, bypassing this restriction is easy as it only requires entering a false birth date when setting up the app.
Supervise the use of TikTok
It is therefore recommended that parents setup TikTok accounts for their children instead of letting them set up their own. It is also recommended that parents share a TikTok account with their children so as to be able to keep an eye on what they are viewing and posting. Finally, parents are advised to encourage and model safe behavior and make sure to set limits on the type of information their children share so as to protect their privacy online.
Changing the settings
Parents should know that on signing up to TikTok, the profile is automatically set to “public”. This means anyone can see the videos your children upload and send messages directly to them. However, to protect their privacy and allow them to use TikTok more safely, you can make the account private. This lets you approve or reject followers and restricts their uploaded content and incoming messages to followers only.
TikTok has also created a Digital Wellbeing feature, which helps to limit the time your children spend on the app and limits the appearance of videos that might be inappropriate. Moreover, the Digital Wellbeing feature is pin code protected so that your children cannot change or turn off your settings.