What parents need to know about TikTok to keep their kids safe on the world’s most downloaded social media app.
UPDATE JAN 2021: TikTok now sets accounts of users ages 13 to 15 to private by default.
We recently covered the rise of TikTok to the number one social media app used by kids, ahead of Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook in our 2020 report on children’s digital habits ("Connected More than Ever"). In the report, we proclaim “TikTok is the king of social media” its popularity will continue to grow. A few days later, the New York Times echoed our findings and our prediction in their article "TikTok (Yes, TikTok) Is the Future".
While some governments have already banned the app and others are looking to do so, it’s safe to say that TikTok is not going away any time soon. So, if you as a parent haven’t had to deal with it yet, it’s more likely than ever that you will. Some of you are still wondering what is the purpose of TikTok? While others are doubting just how dangerous is TikTok, really? And, is it safe for my 10 year old? Finally just about every parent we know is asking what they should do about it.
To answer all those TikTok-related questions, we put together this quick and essential TikTok guide with clear answers and advice, and tips on native and independent parental control apps, to give you greater peace of mind in your child's TikTok dominated world.
Qustodio’s Safety Guide to TikTok
What is TikTok, and why do kids love it so much?
TikTok (previously musical.ly in the U.S.) is a free “destination for short-form mobile videos.” You can think of it as YouTube meets Twitter meets Instagram in that the videos have length limits (15 second clips that can be linked together up to 60 seconds) and that creators have access to filters and effects and a music library (check out the Common Sense Media What is TikTok video). Kids like TikTok because they report feeling more free to be silly and authentic on the platform, whereas Instagram is more of a place where you have to be and look perfect. There is also the pull of instant stardom which has happened to a few TikTok-ers who gained internet fame on the app.
TikTok is one of the first social media platforms born ‘mobile-first’, not adapted to mobile from a desktop environment. This is an important detail because it means being easy for mobile natives to create and watch videos is part of its DNA, and part of what helped propel TikTok to becoming the most downloaded non-gaming app in the world. Mobile-first also means that TikTok is a place where most kids’ parents are not hanging out - yet.
Is TikTok safe?
TikTok shares the same problems as just about every social media app in the universe - data collection issues (the company was fined by the Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting data from its underage users), online predators or groomers, and the spread of misinformation. TikTok is also under fire for the effects of harmful memes such as the Skull-breaker Challenge, the Outlet Challenge, the Fire Challenge and the Choking Challenge to name just a few.
Some other things to look out for on TikTok: Many videos include swearing and sexual lyrics, as well as suggestive clothing or dancing that might not be appropriate for your kids or match your family’s values. Also beware that your kids can spend real money on TikTok by adding virtual coins to the app’s point system.
Some parents are also concerned that TikTok is owned by the Chinese internet conglomerate ByteDance and that their children’s data might be sent to a ‘hostile’ government. TikTok insists they have not and would not share data with the Chinese government.
What can I do to make TikTok safer for my kids?
Most of what happens on TikTok, like most of what happens on the internet, is harmless. The problem is that even just one bad experience - a glimpse of extreme violence, a chat with an online predator, or identity theft - can have a very long lasting, harmful psychological effect on a child or teen who might not have the mental maturity or resilience to deal with it. So while these tips are designed to protect your child on TikTok, TikTok is not unique. Parents need to be aware of the dangers associated with any app their child uses.
- Block TikTok if your child is under 13. We recommend young children not be allowed to use TikTok. TikTok requires parental consent for anyone under 18 years old. But, be aware that bypassing the controls is relatively easy. Use the Qustodio parental control app to block TikTok or any other app you don’t want your child to have access to.
- Make your child’s TikTok account private. Once your child is on TikTok, the first thing you should do to help keep them safe is to make their account private. To do so, go to their profile page. Click on the three dots (...) icon in the top-right corner, and select Privacy and Safety. Then select ‘Private Account’. Also, use the ‘Friends’ setting to limit contact with strangers and potential predators.
- Use TikTok’s Family Pairing Feature. It means you’ll have to create a TikTok account yourself, but TikTok’s new digital wellbeing ‘Family Pairing’ feature is a very good idea for any parent with a child on TikTok. It allows you to sync your TikTok account with your child’s, disable direct messages (TikTok already disables all direct messages for users under 16), turn on restricted content mode and set screen time limits. To do so, open TikTok on both phones. Go to profile and settings and click on the three dots (...) icon in the top-right corner. Then scroll down to Digital wellbeing and tap on Family Pairing. Select who the phone belongs to and scan a QR code to link the accounts. Note that Family Pairing might not be available yet in your region, and that kids will be able to disable the Family Pairing feature at any time (parents will receive a notification if they do.)
- Warn your child about TikTok challenges. While many, like the many dance challenges, are harmless, some, like the Skull-breaker challenge, have landed children in the hospital and others charged with aggravated assault. Make sure your child knows to consult you before trying any challenge to make sure it is really safe. And teach your child about the power of peer-pressure and how to identify it and how to have the courage to stand up to it.
- Watch TikTok videos together. This might be trickier with older kids, but whenever possible keep an eye on what your kids view and post on TikTok. When co-watching isn’t possible, try asking them about their favorite videos, who they follow, and what’s trending as part of a natural conversation.