It seems like it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, and just like with other popular social media platforms, parents are asking, “is TikTok safe for kids?”
TikTok has over 2 billion downloads worldwide and about 800 million active users each month; it was the No. 1 downloaded app in the first few months of 2020 alone.
It is a time-guzzling trend that might not make sense to those who are not active on the platform. Sure, you can post videos, but what’s the big deal and why does your kid want to make a video of themselves sitting on the floor spinning around for the microwave challenge?
Well, it’s not going away anytime soon, so it’s time to untangle this sometimes-confusing social media web so you can decide, as a parent, how to answer the question, “is TikTok safe for kids” — and, more importantly, “is TikTok safe for your kids?”
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a social media platform for sharing 15-60 second user-generated videos, often set to music or pre-recorded audio (like dialogue from a funny movie scene). The service provides easy-to-use tools for creating videos, adding special effects, and sharing the content that may influence how you answer the question, “is TikTok safe for kids?”
It’s possible to post videos, like YouTube, but the length of the content is quite limited (under 60 seconds), like the limited number of characters (280) that can be in a Tweet.
Their Top 100 in 2020 list includes everything from learning to make vegan bacon to dancing at basketball games. There is some more serious content, as well, including commentary and thoughts from some people on how they are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and buying bitcoin, all in the form of 15-60 second videos. (There’s more on content later — keep reading!)
TikTok’s age requirement
Technically, TikTok users must be age 13 or older. However, there is no way to verify this if someone younger has a device with Internet access and wants to set up and use an account.
In the US, there are an estimated 49 million daily users, a third of which are age 14 or younger, “according to internal company data and documents reviewed by The New York Times.” The New York Times article goes on to say a former TikTok employee disclosed that “videos from children who appeared to be even younger were allowed to remain online for weeks.”
Is TikTok safe for kids with the way that it publishes profiles and posts?
TikTok has various settings, depending on the age that is associated with the user account.
Until January 2021, all profiles were automatically public. This allows a user’s profile to be suggested to others as one to follow and gives any user permission to use posted videos in theirs under the Duet and Stitch functions. (Du-huh? Stitch-what? We’ll define those for you in this blog, too!)
Changes in January 2021 included making profiles automatically private for anyone age 13-15 with an account. They won’t be able to host live streams, their direct messaging will be restricted, and their videos will not be able to be downloaded by other users.
For those ages 16-17, the ability to have others download their videos will default on the “off” setting, but they can change this, allowing others to download videos they create.
To change the privacy settings, users, on a phone, should tap on the three dots in the upper right corner of the profile screen and select the privacy tab.
One thing to note is that even if your account is set on private, the information in your profile is still visible to all TikTok users. This includes username, real name (if provided), and bio.
The kind of content on TikTok
The variety of content available on this app is never-ending. Without an account, you can see a sample of the content available to users at tiktok.com. Each time you refresh the homepage, you will be shown different videos. It’s updated in real-time.
On the day that this blog was written, I refreshed the page about a dozen times and scrolled quickly through the first dozen or so videos each time. Examples included but were not limited to cooking demos, gambling, stepping on water balloons with high heels and sound effects, one man looking at a largely displayed photo of another man with his legs spread wide and his hand covering his genitals (wearing no clothes), thoughts from someone in the ICU, a woman in a G-string bikini dancing in front of a pool, political commentary on current events, silly monkey videos, hangovers, and couples dancing for each other (not in a manner typically seen in public unless at a venue with age restrictions).
These videos were all viewed without any account, and each time the page was refreshed, they changed. The one that was shown to me the most? Versions of a cookie mug cake demonstration. (I do love chocolate and baking, so maybe I lingered there, triggering their algorithms to show this to me multiple times? More on their algorithms in the next section!)
TikTok for Younger users
“TikTok for Younger Users allows us to split users into age-appropriate TikTok environments, in line with FTC guidance for mixed audience apps. Users enter the appropriate app experience after passing through an age-gate when they register for a TikTok account.
“Within TikTok for Younger Users, users are provided a viewing experience that does not permit sharing of personal information and puts extensive limitations on content and user interaction. In this ecosystem, users cannot do things like share their videos, comment on others’ videos, message with users, or maintain a profile or followers. However, they are able to experience what TikTok is at its core — showcasing creativity — as they enjoy curated content and experiment with TikTok’s unique, fanciful, and expressive features.”
How content is presented to users and what’s unique about the experience on this platform
One of the things that makes TikTok different than some other popular social media platforms is how content is first presented to a user. Upon setting up a profile within the app directly on a mobile device, without entering any preferences or interests except your birth date, it feeds the user popular videos that have been made public by other users.
Similar to other social media platforms, when you follow someone on TikTok, you will be shown other videos they create. And if you like someone’s video, you are even more likely to be shown content created by that person and to be served similar content. TikTok’s algorithms are some of the most advanced out there in helping users see content that interests them based on their habits and information provided. They notice even if you hover slowly over a video, catching all or most of it, and then send you more stuff like it (maybe why I was shown that baking video multiple times?).
The infinite scroll — the never-ending videos — is more addicting than on other platforms because of how quickly their algorithm learns what users want to see.
It’s as if someone is continually serving you more and more of your favorite foods without you saying directly what they are, but you never feel “full,” so you keep eating and eating and eating. This is what leads to it being so popular, and dare we say, addicting?
TikTok’s Community Guidelines
TikTok provides Community Guidelines that prohibit explicit content, including nudity, but they have exceptions for nudity if it is for “educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic purposes.”
They have a separate section that covers the prohibition of nudity for minors (“content that shows visible private parts”) and do not allow nudity and sexual activity involving minors, harmful acts by minors, physical and psychological harm of minors, crimes against children, sexual exploitation involving minors, underage delinquent behavior, child abuse, grooming behavior, and sexualization of minors.
They prohibit content from or about the following:
- Dangerous organizations and individuals: terrorists, hate groups, money laundering, human trafficking, kidnapping, etc.
- Illegal activities and regulated goods: criminal activities, sale or use of weapons, drugs and controlled substances, and frauds and scams
- Hate speech or behavior, slurs, or hateful ideology
- Violent and graphic content against humans and animals
- Suicide, self-harm, and dangerous acts
- Harassment and bullying
- Content that is not in line with their integrity and authenticity policy; spam, impersonation, misleading information, and stealing intellectual property belonging to others
- Threats to platform security
What does it mean to fill-in-the-blank on TikTok?
Similar to other social media platforms, TikTok has added to the glossary of phrases used to describe interaction with it. Like other apps out there, you can share, like, and follow content and users. Three specific terms they have introduced to pop culture are “duet,” “stitch,” and “challenge.”
A TikTok Duet
When you “duet” with someone, you take their publicly posted video and create a similar one of your own and then post it on a split-screen with the original video. You typically do the same dance move or action in the original TikTok video to the same music. Then, when your video is shared, it is also shared with the original or previous creator. When you go to post a video, you can choose whether or not you give other users permission to use your creation in a duet.
A TikTok Stitch
“Stitch allows users the ability to clip and integrate scenes from another user’s video into their own.” You can use up to 5 seconds of someone else’s video in your video, and like granting permissions to use videos in duets, you can choose if your video can be used in stitch, as well.
A TikTok Challenge
A “challenge” refers to recording a video of yourself doing something and then posting it with a particular hashtag. During the pandemic, the #levelup challenge became popular. It was primarily people stacking toilet paper rolls to see how high their pets could jump. ABC used the hashtag #LikeAnAmericanIdol inviting everyone to “show off your amazing voice!”
Challenges are sorted by hashtags, similar to other social media platforms, so if you want to watch endless videos of pets jumping over stacked toilet paper rolls, you can do so by following the hashtag.
Some parents may be interested to know that on some lists of the “best” or “top” TikTok challenges is a video recording the response of another person when the individual holding the camera walks in the room naked. Some of the instances of these videos include the naked person throwing lingerie in the face of the person they are surprising. The naked individual is not shown on camera. It was called The Walk-in Challenge and had a popular hashtag that went viral.
Precautions TikTok takes to keep teens safe
TikTok launched Family Safety Mode and Screentime Management in early 2020. To use Family Safety Mode, a parent must link their own account (so you need to create one) to your child’s account.
A parent and a child then need to open the app at the same time and select “digital wellbeing” in the settings. At that point, you will determine which device belongs to the parent and which device to the child. The parent can begin choosing the settings that they think are appropriate for the child, and the child cannot alter them.
Through the Family Safety Mode, parents can determine the following:
- How long each day a child can spend on TikTok
- With whom they can communicate in direct messages (which isn’t allowed at all for accounts registered to those under age 16)
- If your teen has to use Restricted Mode — Restricted Mode prevents “the appearance of content that may not be appropriate for all audiences”
- “Discoverability: whether or not a teen’s account is private (your teen decides who can see their content) or pubic (anyone can search and view content)”
- Who can view the videos your teen “liked”
- Who can comment on your teen’s videos
- If your teen’s account will be recommended to others
The “For Parents” section of their resources page also includes a link to the Family Online Safety Institute, ConnectSafety, Top 10 Tips for Parents, a TikTok Parental Guide, StopBullying.gov, WiredSafety, and OnguardOnline.gov.
There have been some dangers reported for children who use TikTok
It has been reported that predators are known to contact and groom children in ways that are concerning to parents. According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a survey of 40,000 schoolchildren in Britain found that 25% of them had live-streamed with someone they did not know, and one out of 20 kids had been asked to take their clothes off.
There are also other areas that might concern parents as they seek to protect those they love most. Some report that using the app could cause kids anxiety and could lead to cyberbullying, which is not unique to this social media platform.
How does TikTok work with Canopy?
As a parent, you know if TikTok will be a safe choice. As you protect and guide your children at various ages, you know what they can handle and how they will handle themselves, putting in place guardrails that are appropriate for their maturity.
With Canopy, if you choose to prevent your child from using a particular app, such as TikTok, you can do so in our App Management tool by cutting off Internet access to it. You can also choose to block the website in Canopy’s Website Management tool.
These settings can be updated as your child gets older and can handle different levels of responsibility, as well, so just because your son or daughter is too young for a social media platform at the time you begin protecting their device with Canopy, doesn’t mean that you can’t make adjustments along the way. Technology is amazing, and communication about how to use it is key.