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What is the TikTok app, and is it safe for my kids?

Nov. 19, 2019

TikTok videos are hard to avoid these days, especially if you’re a parent. The social media video app has been turning ordinary kids into viral internet stars for several years now, and the momentum doesn’t seem to be stopping. But what is TikTok, and where did it come from? 

The social media app started out in 2014, as Musical.ly, a social media platform where kids and adults alike could create short lip-syncing videos and share with the masses. Founded in Shanghai, China, the app was beginning to take fire in the U.S. when it was scooped up by yet another Chinese tech firm. 

ByteDance bought Musical.ly in 2017 and merged with its own app to create social media/video behemoth TikTok. Now the app’s 15-second videos are taking over the internet. 

In June 2019, TikTok passed the billion-user mark, and downloads haven’t slowed down — nor has the number of American kids vying for their 15 seconds of viral fame with video uploads, and their creativity knows no bounds.

“Kids are using TikTok to create content based on whatever strikes their fancy, from lip-syncing famous songs to creating physical stunts and jokes,” says Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer of Bark, a parental control monitoring app for iPhone. “Some people do hot takes and give personal opinions about politics. Other people try to recreate viral dance trends.”

The site also plays host to everyone from celebrities to political candidates to news organizations. But the more it grows, the more parents want to know: Is TikTok a safe place for kids? 

Here are seven things experts say parents really need to know before they let their kids download the app. 

1. TikTok has an age limit

After coming under fire from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and being forced to pay the government $5.7 million in fines for illegally collecting children’s information, TikTok put an age requirement in place on the app. Now you must be 13 to create an account that allows you to create and post videos for other TikTok users to see. 

But that doesn’t mean every kid follows the rules, and all it takes is making up a fake birthday to get past the restriction. Diana Graber, author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World” and founder of Cyber Civics/Cyberwise, has seen kids as young as second grade on the app. 

“One mom told me that her daughter claimed it was ‘just a music app,’ so she let her download it on [the mom’s] phone, not fully understanding that it was an interactive app,” Graber says. 

While the decision of what age to allow your children to start using TikTok is ultimately yours, Graber says requiring kids to adhere to age restrictions is a good way to start them off on the right foot on the internet.

“I think it is important for a child to develop the ethical thinking skills that aren’t fully functional until age 13 before they start using apps like this one,” she says. 

For example, when your child is doing a history report and finds information online, ethical thinking skills help them know whether or not it’s OK to copy and paste that information into the report, Graber says. These skills help kids determine if it’s OK to watch a movie on a “free” online site or make the right decision when a young love interest asks them to share a revealing photo. 

“These skills will help them make good decisions and use these apps safely and wisely,” Graber says. “Remember, everything a child posts online stays online forever and becomes part of their digital reputation. Why set them up to post something they might regret later?”

2. There’s a TikTok alternative for younger kids

What if your younger kids have their hearts set on using TikTok? There’s good news that doesn’t require breaking any rules. 

A “younger user” section of the app allows kids under 13 in on some of the fun. Younger kids can only access videos that have been curated by TikTok’s algorithm for a younger audience, and there are even more limitations when it comes to the videos they create.  

“While users can make their own videos, they can’t post them,” says Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, founder of Children and Screens. “They also can’t exchange messages with other users, and other users can’t view their profile.”

Of course, there’s always you, the parent, as well. Using the app with your kids and acting as their guide can be a perfect way to provide a TikTok experience that’s far safer than allowing them to use it alone.

3. Beware: There’s problematic content and behavior

Stepping beyond that younger kids’ section opens the door to the whole world of TikTok, and there’s plenty of scary stuff out there, including: 

Inappropriate content

“Ranging from overtly sexual TikToks, to physically dangerous stunts that kids may want to recreate, to overtly racist and discriminatory commentary, there is a wide range of concerning content on the platform,” Jordan says.

Risky access

The ability for strangers to message users on TikTok or take part in the popular Duets feature, wherein users create a “duet” with an already uploaded video, has been exploited by unsavory individuals, Jordan says. In particular, child predators sometimes use Duets as a means to access young children and groom them.  

Cyberbullying

As with most apps that allow for discussion, TikTok is oft cited as a hotbed of teen bullying by experts. Its “Reactions” video option, for example, can turn sour when other users create response videos that are hurtful and cruel. 

It’s why parents like Megan Meddaugh, of upstate New York, say it’s important to set clear guidelines with their kids about TikTok use. That can include rules about language your kids can use on the app when talking to other users plus guidelines on what to do if they encounter a cyberbully. 

“I told them, just as in real life, not to jump on the bandwagon,” the mother of three teenagers says. 

Peer pressure

“Kids may get sucked into the pressure to create more and better content, and this can cause anxiety, especially if they’re not getting popular,” Jordan says. 

She adds, “Many chase after that popularity by taking part in challenges, which can often be dangerous,” alluding to a practice popular on TikTok and other social platforms, wherein kids attempt to recreate other users’ videos. Sometimes that can mean a fun dance trend. Other video trends, like the cinnamon challenge — in which kids were challenged to eat a spoonful of cinnamon in under a minute without drinking anything to wash it down — have been known to present real health and safety concerns. 

4. TikTok has parental controls, but you have to activate them

So what if your child has a regular — i.e. non-“younger user” — account? Do you have to let them out onto the Wild West of TikTok, where anyone can watch their videos? Well, no.

TikTok parental controls can be found in the user profile by clicking on the three dots in the upper right corner. From there, a parent can select “privacy settings” followed by “privacy and safety.”

There are several options offered there, with varying degrees of parental control. The most basic is to change the account to a “private account.” This will ensure only those people you or your child accept as followers can watch your child’s videos. 

The safety settings also allow parents to: 

  • Turn off the option for others to find your child.

  • Turn off the option for others to create Duets with your child.

  • Control who can message your child.

  • Filter out certain keywords.

  • Control who can comment on your child’s videos.

  • Set a passcode so your kids can’t change the settings without permission. (You’ll find this within the “Digital Wellbeing” section of the privacy and settings screen.)

One thing to keep in mind: Parental controls may keep other users out, but they don’t keep kids with full accounts from accessing troubling content. The controls also won’t prevent kids from being bullied by users they accept as followers, such as other kids they know in real life. 

5. TikTok collects (some of your) kids’ information

Yes, even though it settled with the FTC and even if you do set your child’s profile to private, TikTok is still collecting a certain amount of information, Pietra says. According to the app’s own privacy policy, that includes an ID of the device being used, web browser type and version, IP address, country-level location and app activity data (video watches, time spent using the app and general usage data). 

“Information is collected and shared with third party providers ‘as necessary for them to perform a business, professional or technology support function’ for the app,” according to the TikTok policy. 

6. Fame is exciting, but it’s not for everyone

Like YouTube and Instagram before it, TikTok has quickly become an app some kids hope will help them score at least a modicum of fame. Of course, it has happened to a few, with some of the more successful TikTokers earning lucrative partnerships with brands. 

“The mark of success for a video is making it to the ‘For You’ page, which is basically a sort of leaderboard where fast-rising and popular videos appear, and which everyone sees,” Jordan says. 

From there, a TikTok video may just end up anywhere from the New York Times to “Good Morning America.” Stories like these have convinced many American teens that it’s easier to go viral on TikTok than any other platform. 

That’s enticing, says Ana Homayoun, author of “Social Media Wellness,” a parent’s guide for raising kids in the digital age. But it’s important to teach kids to prioritize safety over the (still highly unlikely) chance of virality. 

“So many kids — and adults — see the potential for monetization and don't realize all the potential pitfalls,” Homayoun says. “Helping students understand potential downsides around fame is a key conversation to have from a non-judgmental perspective.” 

So how do you break down all those downsides? 

  • Talk realistically about social media influencers. “Many current and former social media stars and influencers have publicly warned others about the toll that social media stardom has taken on their mental health and real-world relationships,” Pietra says. Share articles with your kids about social media influencers and what life is really like for them, focusing on the real stories of burnout and other challenges rather than glitzy tabloids.  

  • Role model good behavior. If you make jokes about going viral or act like social media is going to make you a star, your kids are hearing a very specific message. So be careful what you say in front of them, especially when it comes to your own expectations about social media and the amount of time you spend on it instead of interacting with your kids face-to-face. 

  • Talk about your family values. Walking the walk in front of your kids goes a long way, but it won’t replace simple conversations about why fame is not the end goal in life. Meddaugh says she’s been careful to tell her kids that TikTok is a place to watch and create videos and not to expect anything more. “It’s an outlet for fun, and I want them to view it that way,” she says. 

7. TikTok is a creative space

Yes, TikTok comes with concerns for many parents. So why does anyone allow their child to use it? Where else can kids learn their AP history lessons set to musical theater? Or learn cell mitosis through dance moves? The creativity showcased on the platform is boundless, and there’s plenty of positivity for kids to find in the app. 

“TikTok can be incredibly fun and a great source of entertainment where teens and tweens to showcase their talents and express themselves,” Jordan says. 

The goal is to keep it fun and entertaining by prepping kids to use it responsibly.

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