TikTok: What parents need to know about online safety

If you’re familiar with Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube or any other type of video-based social network, then you’ve probably heard about TikTok. The mobile social media application is a video platform that enables users to create short videos of a minute or less to entertain other users in the online community, as well as the user’s own followers.

The fast-growing social media platform reported more than 800 million monthly active users as of April 2020, beating out social media giants like Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter and Pinterest to snag the number seven spot out of most popular social media networks. That’s pretty impressive for a brand that’s relatively new on the scene.

TikTok debuted in August 2018, when Chinese tech company ByteDance acquired the app Musical.ly, a now-defunct lip-synching video app, and merged it with a lip-synching app called Douyin. The TikTok app now has offices around the globe, including in Los Angeles and New York.

Users as young as 13 can join the TikTok community. In fact, according to Omnicore, 41% of TikTok users are 16 to 24, and about half of TikTok’s global audience is under 34. Omnicore also reports 56% of TikTok users are male and 44% are female.

How does TikTok work?

You can download the free app to a smartphone. From there, you can upload your videos that are up to 60 seconds long. Sounds, songs and filters can be added to each video clip. Viewers can like, comment on and share the content.

You don’t even have to ever upload any videos to interact in the TikTok community. You can follow accounts and discover videos based on hashtags and topics. You can get your content seen by more people by adding hashtags to your content, which may lead to it going viral on the network.

TikTok has some unique features compared to other video-streaming apps like YouTube and Instagram. One is that you can see all the users who look at your profile. 

Another is that users can choose from libraries of sounds and songs to add sound effects to their videos. Users can also create videos with other followers. All of the effects, splicing and video creation happens right in the app, no outside editing is required.

TikTok’s popularity has no signs of slowing down — with 1.5 billion downloads worldwide and a value of $75 million as of February 2020. That valuation makes it the world’s most valuable startup company, according to Brandastic.

With TikTok’s rising popularity with teens, this is one social network that’s definitely worth watching for parents and guardians. Here’s what you should be aware of and how to keep your teens safe on TikTok.

How safe is TikTok?

Any time your child is sharing personal information online, they make themselves vulnerable to issues like cyberstalking, harassment, cyberbullying, as well as being sent inappropriate content. The content your teen creates could be shared inappropriately, as well.

As a parent, it’s important to be aware of how using TikTok could make your kid vulnerable and how the app may even be a national cybersecurity threat.

Personal safety

Let’s look at personal safety first and the risks users incur when using the TikTok app.

  • The access given to the camera/audio while using the app: Recording a video for upload to TikTok requires giving the app access to the smartphone’s camera and audio. This is common with video-capture apps, but the risk is that the app, or someone connected to it, could steal video or audio recordings that were never intended to be uploaded to or made public on TikTok.
  • Possible location tracking: Enterprise security company Proofpoint found TikTok collects location information and uses GPS tracking. That’s concerning, since those location features don’t relate to the video creation that is being done on the app.
  • Free-for-all access to download your videos and/or make your private videos public: In 2020, the cybersecurity company Check Point identified several vulnerabilities in the TikTok app, including one that would allow attackers to make private videos public.
  • Upload unauthorized videos to your account: Check Point also found a vulnerability where hackers could manipulate TikTok accounts and content and upload unauthorized videos. Inappropriate videos could be reputation-damaging for a teen who’s trying to get into college or who wants to get a job.
  • Reveal personal information: Another identified vulnerability is that hackers could reveal personal information saved on the account, like an email address.
  • AI algorithm & child predators: TikTok’s AI algorithm presents users with a “For You” tab, which contains video recommendations based on what the user browses and what the user watches, like a video discovery category. This could be dangerous if child predators are seeking out children on the app, since similar video content is so easily discoverable. Again, more than 40% of users on TikTok are between 16 and 24, which makes plenty of underage public content available for predators.
  • Direct messaging: TikTok enables users to send direct messages to each other, just like on Instagram. This means your teen could get inappropriate messages from other users as long as they are approved followers. For undiscerning teens, who are more interested in getting a high number of followers than in vetting followers, this makes them vulnerable to receiving inappropriate or harassing messages. Luckily, as of April 2020, TikTok has automatically disabled direct messages for registered accounts under 16. Also, no messages can support images or videos, though sensitive information like email addresses can be shared over messaging, which can lead to image and video-sharing through other means.

National safety

Censorship and data usage are a couple major themes that have American politicians concerned about TikTok’s prevalence in the U.S. According to a 2019 report by Vox, leaked documents have shown that TikTok’s moderators are censoring videos mentioning topics that are sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party.

There are also data concerns, since Chinese law grants the government greater access to private company data, which could make TikTok data vulnerable. There have already been reports that the U.S. government has evidence of TikTok sending American user data to China, though the company has pushed back on the allegations.

In October 2019, TikTok published a blog post stating no data is subject to Chinese law and no content is removed based on sensitivities related to China. TikTok’s privacy policy statement on data is murkier, with the company stating it retains user information for as long as it’s necessary to provide the service, or as long as the company has a legitimate business purpose for keeping the data. So, even if your kid quits TikTok, your child’s data may still be the company’s property.

Likes and going viral

One of TikTok’s main attractions is the ability the network has to make its users “go viral.” To go viral means having a piece of your content spread rapidly online, in a way that leads to “internet fame.” 

Going viral can lead to lucrative careers that teens may seek out. For example, social media influencers who grow their followings across social networks, can earn up to $10,000 to more than $250,000 per post depending on how many followers they have.

Getting followers, likes, comments and shares is also a temporary self-esteem boost for many teens. According to research by Northwestern Medicine, positive social media interactions provide a dopamine boost. Conversely, social media usage can also lead to anxiety and low self-esteem over time, due to social comparison, fear of missing out and other negative effects.

Your teen doesn’t need to have a large following to go viral on TikTok. The social network levels the playing field for creative content to get massive views. It has a trending hashtags section, where videos that contain those hashtags can get featured. In this section, TikTok features its own hashtag ideas. When a hashtag is recently introduced, any user has less competition to get featured. When they do get featured, their video can quickly take off.

With more views, videos might get featured in the For You section on the TikTok home screen, shown to other users who are browsing content from accounts other than those they’re actively following. Users can also search for video content on TikTok by searching topics. Depending on how your teen labels their videos, they might get discovered by interested users.

There’s also a “Following” section, where users can browse content that only comes from accounts they’re following. Teens with large networks of followers can get more views on their videos, which can make them more prominent in TikTok areas like the trending hashtags section.

By paying attention to popular hashtags and seeing what kind of content is featured in the “For You” section, young TikTok users can try to game the algorithm to get featured. There are also TikTok “challenges,” which give TikTok users ideas on content to create related to trending themes that can help them go viral.

Challenges on TikTok

There are social media challenges for every app. Some are celebrity-driven. Some are created to raise money for charity. Some are downright dangerous, like the Tide Pod challenge or the “In My Feelings” challenge, which got people hopping out of slow-moving cars to dance alongside them.

Social media challenges give social media users like TikTok members a popular content idea to capitalize on. All the user has to do is follow the basic rules of the challenge and film their own take on it. They then get a chance to be seen in challenge-specific categories, grow their following and get noticed.

There are a lot of challenges that have gone viral on TikTok. Some are relatively harmless, like the “Renegade” dance challenge. A 14-year-old choreographed dance moves to a 15-second song. When it went viral, other TikTok users did their own versions.

Some trending hashtags promote potentially dangerous behavior. For example, search #writeaprisoner on TikTok, and you’ll see videos of teens sending letters and photos to prisoner penpals found through writeaprisoner.com. 

The painful “skull-breaker” challenge involved three people in each challenge. One person in the middle jumped into the air, then the other two on either side kicked their legs out from under them, causing them to fall flat. One 13-year-old who did the challenge was hospitalized and suffered from seizures.

Not only do some challenges threaten physical safety, but teens also need to be aware of how their social media content can affect their futures. Gaining popularity for participating in dangerous stunts could affect their ability to get a scholarship or land a future job.

What can parents do? 

Like any online usage, parents should pay attention to how their children use TikTok, including who they interact with, the content they’re viewing and the content they’re sharing.

First, it helps to lay a foundation of internet safety best practices. Talk to children about how they use the internet, apps and social media channels. Have open conversations about the content they’re following and sharing.

You might want to institute screen time management. There are parental control apps where you can limit the amount of time your teen spends on certain apps. You should also talk to your teen about the potential dangers of social media apps, like forming relationships with people they don’t know, which could be inappropriate or disingenuous.

TikTok does have a safety center for parents. There, the network explains how to use private account settings and how to use its Family Pairing feature, which allows parents to get more involved with their teen’s use of the social network. Family Pairing enables screen time management for TikTok and direct messaging restrictions. It also has Restricted Mode, which can restrict the appearance of inappropriate content on your teen’s account.

Here’s how to set up Family Pairing:

  • Go to your device’s app store, search for TikTok and install the app.
  • Make sure your TikTok and your teen’s TikTok account are logged in. On both devices, head to Settings, then Digital Wellbeing to choose the Family Pairing process. You’ll have to scan a QR code on your teen’s device to pair the accounts.
  • Explain other TikTok privacy features to your teen and work with them to manage their settings.
  • Make your teen’s account private. With a private account, a TikTok user can approve or deny followers and restrict messages and uploaded content to followers only. To make your teen’s TikTok profile private, have your teen tap the Settings icon, then tap Privacy and Safety. Turn on Private Account.
  • Take advantage of block/report features. To block an account, your child can go to the profile of the account they want to block. Tap the Settings icon, then tap Block and follow the steps. Your teen will be able to report the account to TikTok.

FAQ

If my child’s content is featured on the For You page, does everyone have access to it?

Yes, if your teen’s content is on the For You page, then it’s public. It may appear on other people’s For You tabs. Your teen can make an individual video private or make their entire profile private, which will prevent this from happening.

How many people can see my child’s video?

That depends on your child’s privacy settings. If their profile is private and they have one approved follower, then one person can see the video. But that doesn’t limit their follower from showing the video on their phone. Plus, someone could record your teen’s video as it’s playing on someone’s TikTok account, then upload it for more people to see. There’s truly no way to privatize content once it gets out on the internet.

Who owns the right to my child’s video after it is posted?

Your child owns the right to their video within content and intellectual property rights. However, TikTok can use your teen’s video in the company’s advertising and marketing campaigns — another privacy consideration to be aware of.

Is there a way to limit what type of content my child can see?

Yes. Make sure your teen’s TikTok account is in Restricted mode. Enable this through Family Pairing.

Am I able to approve my child’s video before it is posted?

Technically, there is no feature that allows this that is built in to the app. You can monitor your child’s account manually to view content or set up an agreement that your teen will show you their video content before they post it to TikTok.

Can I add multiple children to my Family Pairing account?

Yes. You will have to go through the Family Pairing process for each account you want to link.

About the author

Nicki Escudero is a Phoenix-based freelance writer and journalist with more than 18 years of experience in the publishing industry, writing for global publications and international magazines. A former expat living in Australia, Nicki has a passion for world travel and loves to learn about new cultures.