App Watch: TikTok

​TikTok! First a smash hit song by Kesha! Now an extremely popular social networking application that has become a global sensation.

If you are a parent of a young person you will have undoubtedly heard of TikTok. Once known as, this application was acquired by a Chinese technology company in 2017, consequently migrating all profiles, videos and user details from over to TikTok servers located in China.

To highlight it’s popularity, TikTok hit 1 BILLION downloads in 2018! ONE BILLION DOWNLOADS! These stats have seen TikTok out perform the traditional big players; Snapchat and Instagram.

Hand holding a smartphone with the TikTok logo on the screen

What is TikTok and how does it work?

TikTok is a video-sharing app that allows users to create and share 15-second videos, on any topic. Literally ANYTHING! To sign up for TikTok, you require an email address, a phone number or an existing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Google account. TikTok’s Terms of Service stipulates users must be 13+ years of age. As Cyber Safety Presenters we often chat with surprised parents/guardians who are completely unaware that TikTok is a social networking platform. The features that exist within TikTok allow opportunities for users to connect, share, comment and message other users within the platform directly.

When signing up for TikTok, a user’s account is set to public by default, meaning anyone can see your videos, send you direct messages to chat and access location information. Like any social networking application, a young person using this service should ensure they have a private account. Private accounts allow you to have more control over who can see you, however, on TikTok even private accounts still allow strangers to send friend requests and directly message all users within the platform. To make your TikTok account private, users need to access their profile page and select the ellipsis (…) icon in the top-right corner. Select ‘Privacy’ and ‘Safety’. There, select ‘Private Account’. You can also select who can send you comments and direct messages, and who can do a duet with you. Using the ‘Friends’ setting or turning those features off completely limits contact with strangers. While these settings are helpful it is still important to monitor your child’s account and ensure they are following accounts that you think are appropriate for their age group.

Two teenage girls using a phone on a tripod to film themselves performing dance moves

What will your children see on TikTok?

The videos created by users are generally fifteen seconds long and replay in a continuous loop. These user generated videos vary from recording incredible talents, participating in viral campaigns and singing songs, to the current concerning popular trend of showcasing dangerous stunts in the hope of going ‘viral’ (in other words: spreading quickly with thousands of views).

It’s important to understand that all social networking sites and applications are full of publicly viewable (user generated) content. TikTok is not immune to malintent users exploiting this site by publishing inappropriate material. Users can explore and search for videos and profiles through the ‘Discover’ section within the platform. The ‘Discover’ or ‘Search’ function on any social media site is essentially an open search engine where users can view unfiltered material produced by all of its users. This can often result in underage children being exposed to inappropriate or harmful content such as extreme behaviours, drug and alcohol references, sexual material and coarse language.

What is the appeal of TikTok?

TikTok and its functionality has a lot of appeal to young digital users. What young person doesn’t love recording themselves singing and dancing along to their favourite song and artist, sharing a hidden talent or even doing something outrageously silly in a 15 second clip!? The short time investment of the TikTok content sees users hooked in consuming a lot of video content in what is fast becoming known as falling into a “social networking hole”.

Three young girls pose in front of their phone camera

How is TikTok taking responsibility for the safety of their users?

With social pressure to comply with safer standards, like Instagram, TikTok promotes kindness reminding users to “say something nice” when prompting comments.

TikTok also includes a Digital Wellbeing feature to help limit time spent on the app and also limit the appearance of videos that may be inappropriate. To turn these features on, users need to select the settings ellipsis (…) at the top right of your user profile. Then select ‘Digital Wellbeing’.  The settings that this feature enable are protected by a four-digit code so young users can’t turn them off on their own. Parents can choose to turn on ‘Screen Time Management’ limiting users to two hours (still very high) on the app per day, and ‘Restricted Mode’ blocking some inappropriate or flagged content from appearing.

The Final Word

One of the biggest red flags that comes with an application like TikTok is the accessibility that users have to other users. Any time a social networking application becomes popular it becomes a platform for online predators to exploit. Given that the default setting of TikTok is public, the app has quickly become another place for online groomers and predators to create fake accounts and, from there, contact vulnerable young users.

We recommend downloading any app you are considering allowing your children to use and exploring the functionality for yourself before allowing them to use the technology. Check out the first few available videos that appear when you use the ‘Discover’ section to search for content to see what content is discoverable. You will quickly realise the prevalent and vastly inappropriate style of videos that young people are able to view.

Remember that any social media platform can be a source of cyberbullying and a ground for sexual predators. TikTok, like any other app, can present such dangers to young children. Always monitor their account and speak to them regularly how they are using these platforms, what they see and who they are connecting with online. You can use our Digital Use Agreement to help set up family guidelines around technology use, and use our Conversation Checklist to continue the conversation in your home.

Stay informed, up to date and regularly talk to your kids about online life!