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Is TikTok Safe for Kids?

  |  Rachael Roth

Home to many a dance challenge, TikTok is social currency for Gen-Z. Here’s everything parents should know about the wildly trendy app that most of us are too old for.

Though TikTok started as a lip syncing app, it’s rare that you’ll find a straightforward lip syncing video on the teenager-dominated platform. How it works: Users upload a sound byte (from a song, TV show, or other source) and record their own video using the audio. Each video is only 15 seconds long, but you can edit together a few clips for a total of a 1-minute TikTok (yeah, it’s a noun).

But don’t think karaoke: On TikTok, audio samples are reimagined into full-blown sketches with videos meticulously edited for comedic effect. Dance challenges catch on like wildfire and blaze through the community of Gen-Zers to celebrities as big as Jennifer Lopez and Will Smith. TikTok has launched comedy careers and enabled people to become millionaires.

The Chinese company, however, has dealt with ongoing concerns around privacy, specifically claims it ignored the children’s privacy law and has not adequately protected the personal information of its young users.

There have been reports of serious security issues, and the U.S. military does not allow it on government-issued phones. The app has already been banned in India—with Australia and the United States potentially following suit due to national security concerns.

Most recently, President Trump signed an executive order that threatens to ban TikTok if it’s not sold by the Chinese-owned company. Although Microsoft, Twitter, and now Oracle have expressed interest in acquiring the wildly popular social media app, the future of TikTok is at the moment unclear.

So what's the deal? Should you keep your kids off TikTok? Social media and data privacy are never the best of friends. In the same way Facebook or Instagram predicts your likes and dislikes by tracking your activity, TikTok is definitely capturing data as you use the app. What's different of course is that it's a Chinese company, and the implications of TikTok's gigantic dataset falling into the hands of a foreign adversary is a larger conversation.

In terms of whether your kids are secure on the app, it's probably no worse than other social media platforms and TikTok has taken steps to improve it's security and give parents more control. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

The way users navigate the app is by endlessly scrolling from video to video, whether or not they subscribe to a users’ channel. TikTok uses an algorithm to prioritize videos with the most engagement, so the more popular a video is, the more likely it is to be shown to people. Yet it's still possible to scroll through and see a new video with few views, likes, or comments, and you can easily find strangers’ videos through hashtags, or just by looking at the videos made using a particular audio sample. Essentially, if you post a video publicly, anyone can find it. Most TikTok users aim to reach as many people as possible, and profiles are set to public by default. If you’re not ready to set your child on the path to becoming an influencer, make sure that they set their accounts to private. (You can read our tips for monitoring apps on your child’s phone and other recommended safety measures here).

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The comments section on TikTok is largely supportive. Members of the LGBTQA+ community make up a large percentage of users, #bodypositivity is one of the many trending topics on the platform, and many videos are designed for users to teach each other skills like makeup application for all genders. Still, as with any social media platform, bullying does exist. Depending on your kid’s age, you might both agree that it’s best for them to keep their profile private to avoid bullying and harassment altogether.

It is also possible for users to privately message each other, and though it’s rare, predators have targeted children on the app through DM’s (direct messages). If your child’s account isn’t private, make sure to check in with them to see what messages they’re receiving, if any.

Common Sense Media recommends kids be at least fifteen to sign up for an account, however TikTok allows users at age thirteen to create a profile. Children under thirteen can access a limited app experience:

  • Does not permit sharing of personal information
  • Puts extensive limitations on content and user interaction
  • Users cannot do things like share their videos, comment on others' videos, message with users, or maintain a profile or followers

Consumer groups claim, however, there have been issues with age verification. Specifically, even on the service designed for children under age thirteen, a child who first tries to register for an account as a younger user could instantly delete it and sign up for an over-13 account using the same mobile device and faking the birth date.

One way to ensure your kids are staying safe on the app is through a feature released this spring, Family Pairing, which allows parents to connect their kids’ accounts to their own, and disable direct messages, turn on restricted content mode, and set screen time limits. Enabling this feature and controlling your child's settings from your own phone should give you peace of mind that they're staying safe on the app.

All in all, it’s easy for kids to safely navigate TikTok, especially when you keep the lines of communication open and occasionally schedule check-ins, or use the app as a family.

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