How bad can it be to let your child watch a short video featuring a pug running circles around a yard?
Seems harmless enough, until you realize that one video feeds a proprietary algorithm that recommends content based not just on the videos your child watches, but their location and language, and continually exposes your child to new content, mostly from creators they may not follow.
Since its 2016 launch in China, TikTok has exploded, getting downloaded worldwide over 3 billion times and morphing into a full-fledged video service with an extraordinary range of content geared at all types of audiences. And it’s highly addictive.
According to a 2022 Pew survey, kids and teens spend on average 91+ minutes a day on TikTok.
You can learn more about how screen time affects kids, in our previous article.
But is TikTok safe for kids? That’s the question every parent wants to know.
“While there’s plenty of fun and engaging content on TikTok that parents and kids can enjoy together, and it’s certainly a shared interest among kids today, parents should be mindful of the app’s limitations and risks,” reminds Julie D’Orsi, HYM Lead Psychometrist.
“TikTok can lead a child to engage in a dangerous activity in the form of a challenge, lead to shorter attention spans, and expose them to constant negative comparisons. It may also expose children to misinformation which may lead to poor mental and physical health.”
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a social media app that allows users to create and share short-form videos on any topic. While most videos range from 15 to 60 seconds, the app now enables videos up to 10 minutes. Users can add filters, music, animation, special effects and more, changing even the most mundane content into engaging entertainment. TikTok has incredible social influence, and is credited for allowing users to be authentic and relatable.
TikTok has two primary feeds. The “For You” feed recommends content, ranking videos based on everything from what interests you express to what you’re not interested in. The “Following” feed only includes videos by creators you follow.
While TikTok states its mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy” it’s become much more than a platform for self-expression. It also has the potential to become a toxic environment for children, exposing them to highly addictive content and inappropriate, negative content and commentary.
What is TikTok's age limit?
According to TikTok's terms of service, users must be at least 13 years old to create an account. Any user between 13 to 15 years has their account set to private by default, which prevents them from private messaging and limits comments to their “friends.” Once a user is 16, however, they can access private messaging and record and post live videos.
Age verification, however, is not foolproof, and younger children can easily bypass it by entering a fake birthdate. This raises concerns about the suitability of the app for younger users.
Just how many kids are on TikTok? As of April 2022, almost 18% of the U.S. user base was teens age 12-17, with 2.5% kids age 11 years or younger. Almost half of U.S. users fall between age 18 and 34. Another trend that’s disturbing? According to Common Sense Media, 38% of kids aged 8 to 12 years now report using some sort of social media – an age group that is often not allowed on certain platforms.
Why are parents concerned about TikTok?
There are several reasons why parents might be worried about their children using TikTok. These concerns range from exposure to inappropriate content (and language in song lyrics) to cyberbullying and data privacy issues.
What strikes many parents is that TikTok has different viewing rules in China. In 2021, Chinese authorities set rules that limit minors to one hour a day to play online games, and only on Friday, weekend and holidays. Any children under 14 are limited to 30 minutes a day. Moreover, the content directed towards kids includes science experiments, museum and art exhibits – all designed to “inspire kids.” Contrast that to what the algorithm feeds most U.S. kids (entertaining, yes but not necessarily educating) and it raises concerns that the parent company Bytedance, based in China, knows more about how addictive this platform can be.
And addictiveness is not the only concern. Harmful content is a concern as well. To see how the algorithm responds, researchers at the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate set up fake teen accounts in the U.S. Canada, Australia and the U.K. that “liked” videos about body image, eating disorders and mental health. Users were quickly recommended content on losing weight and self harm, even videos of razor blades, supermodels, and discussions of suicide. As cited in their report, “vulnerable” accounts (usernames included the term “lose weight” to suggest an unhealthy focus on eating) received 12 times more “For You” content related to self harm.
Similarly, a recent report from Common Sense Media found that for girls with moderate to severe depressive symptoms, 69% are exposed to suicide-related content at least once a month on TikTok.
The potential risks of TikTok for kids
1. Inappropriate content
TikTok features a wide variety of content, including comedy skits, dance routines, and lip-syncing videos. However, not all content on the app is child-friendly. TikTok states that users are barred from sharing inappropriate or illegal content, but relies on algorithms to filter content – which is definitely not foolproof.
For example, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) ran a research study on 1,030 videos from 491 TikTok accounts, and used keywords related to ideologies, extremist individuals, and related events. They found 30% (over 300 videos) promoted white supremacy; 24% featured support for extremist and terrorist individuals or organizations. Others supported holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
There are also TikTok challenges (tagged by hashtags) that encourage users to create videos doing a specific action or task. Some can be inspiring, like #ThePushUpChallenge or are branded, for example Colgate’s #MakeMomSmile. While the minority, some challenges encourage users to try things that can be dangerous or deadly. Newsweek listed a few that went viral.
As with any social media platform, cyberbullying is a concern on TikTok. One organization found kids on TikTok have a 64% chance of experiencing cyberbullying – this includes repeated harmful or offensive comments, harassment, spreading rumors or lies, and threatening and hurtful messages – all which can have a detrimental effect on children and teens mental health and self-esteem.
It’s important for parents to be aware that all social media platforms (including YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and more) have issues with cyberbullying. The problems are all the same (summarized here by the Cyberbullying Research Center):
- Cyberbullying is related to significant emotional and psychological problems including low self-esteem, anger, suicidal ideation, and more.
- Adolescent girls are more likely than boys to be cyberbullied.
- Traditional bullying is still more common than cyberbullying, but the two are closely related.
- Cyberbullying is related to other issues like delinquency, anti-social behavior, and substance abuse.
3. Data privacy
TikTok has faced scrutiny over its data privacy practices. The app collects a significant amount of user data, including location, device information, and browsing history. Parents may be concerned about how this data is being used and who has access to it.
Like other social media apps, TikTok can be addictive. Children may spend excessive amounts of time on the app, which can negatively impact their schoolwork, sleep, and overall well-being.
The Wall Street Journal ran a study (releasing its findings in this video), creating fake accounts to get a deeper look at how the TikTok algorithm works. While the fake accounts didn’t enter age, location or interests, it did use these factors to guide what videos the bot watched. Here’s the alarming finding:
“...TikTok only needs one of these to figure you out: How long your linger over a piece of content. Every second you hesitate or rewatch, the app is tracking you. Through this one powerful signal, TikTok learns your most hidden interests and emotions, and drives you deep into rabbit holes of content that are hard to escape.”
How to keep your kids safe on TikTok
1. Set up parental controls
TikTok offers several parental control features, such as screen time management and restricted mode. These settings can help limit your child's exposure to inappropriate content and manage the amount of time they spend on the app.
Some settings make more sense depending on the age of your child, but it’s good to know key options:
- Privacy – to limit your child’s contact with strangers, it’s a good idea to set up a private account. Under privacy settings, you can also limit who comments on your child’s video, whether it’s downloadable, or who can “stitch” (aka, add on to your child’s content).
- Restricted – this feature instructs the app to block or filter out more mature content, but it’s not bulletproof. To block any videos you find inappropriate, press “not interested” and “more” – which will block all videos from a user and with that sound/song.
- Screen time – While the app limits screen time automatically based on the user’s age, you can set your own limits and set a password that needs to be entered in order for your child to continue using the app.
2. Talk to your kids about online safety
It's essential to have open and honest conversations with your children about online safety. Discuss the potential risks of using TikTok and establish guidelines for appropriate behavior on the platform.
How do you talk to your kids about social media safety?
Adds D’Orsi, “Kids want structure and guidance. For younger children, parents may want to use technological parental controls to limit screen time and block age inappropriate content.
For older children and teens, it is important for parents to be frank and honest with their children about the inherent privacy and other risks associated with social media.”
3. Monitor your kids' TikTok usage
Regularly check your child's TikTok account to ensure they are adhering to the agreed-upon rules and not engaging in risky behavior. Parents are encouraged to use the family pairing feature, linking your and your children’s accounts. Not only can you control screen time, comments and set restrictions, but your kids can’t change these setting without your approval. You can also see what videos your children have posted and “liked” plus who they follow.
For teens, here’s where it gets tricky. Many are resistant to any type of monitoring, but you should still be aware of how and what they’re watching.
“Try not to be reactionary when your child opens up to you,” advises D’Orsi.
“A great tip is to listen without reacting and spend some time thinking about an appropriate response before responding in haste. We want our kids to be able to tell us what is going on in their world so that we can keep them safe.
Not being heard or fear of being reprimanded often leads to evasive behavior and may put them at risk.”
Is TikTok safe for kids?
TikTok can be a fun and creative platform for kids when used responsibly. However, there are potential risks associated with using the app. Parents should be proactive in ensuring their child's online safety by setting up parental controls, discussing online safety, and monitoring their child's usage.
What else can parents do to protect their kids online?
Parents should educate themselves about other social media apps and websites their children are using. Regularly updating privacy settings, using strong passwords, and being aware of online trends can also help protect your child in the digital world. Ultimately, fostering a relationship built on trust and open communication is key to ensuring your child's online safety.