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TikTok is great for socialising and can provide a creative outlet for your child. It became the social media sensation of lockdown, with children, families and celebrities filming themselves dancing, lip-syncing or performing skits. Favoured by under-25s, who make up its core audience, TikTok has become the world’s most downloaded non-gaming app. Content covers a range of topics including fashion, cooking, cleaning tips, fun dance items, talented pets and the ever-present challenges, many of which are perfectly harmless and great fun, such as:
- Which celebrity do you think you look like? Choose one and recreate their pictures for the #celeblookalike Challenge.
- A useful and inspiring TikTok challenge – make a video tidying up your room for the #cleaningszn Challenge.
- The #AlbumCover Challenge is all about recreating the album artwork of your favourite song in a TikTok video to express your current mood.
- Recreating your childhood pictures is great TikTok material. Also, I’m Just a Kid is a great challenge to do with your family and your lifelong friends.
However, there is a harmful, even dangerous, side to some of these challenges on TikTok. The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) says young people should be careful when attempting to recreate moves by professional dancers, or when taking part in challenges on social media. RAD Artistic Director Gerard Charles said in an interview with the Stage, that while the platform can be a great inspiration for amateur dancers, supervision from a trained teacher is key to avoiding injury. “Watching dance on TikTok can provide great inspiration, but without an experienced and qualified teacher who understands physical development and age-appropriate movement, it is all too easy for copying what is seen on social media to lead to injuries,” he said.
American actor Kyra Sedgwick was pictured with an ice pack on her wrist after attempting the “Footloose Drop”, a TikTok dance trend, and in 2020, a spate of TikTok users reportedly became injured after attempting a complicated set of moves to “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion during the first COVID lockdown.
Far more worryingly, on 25th August 2022, 14-year-old Leon Brown was found unresponsive in his bedroom at this home in Cumbernauld, Lanarkshire. His mother, Lauryn Keating, reported that his friends said that they had been doing the viral “blackout challenge” during a Facetime call. This is allegedly the same TikTok challenge blamed for the death of 12-year-old Archie Battersbee in April 2022.
Archie’s mother, Hollie Dance, found him unconscious at her home in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, with a ligature around his neck, which led her to believe that he may have been doing an online challenge that went wrong. He was taken to hospital with traumatic head injuries. Doctors at the Royal London declared that Archie was “brain dead” and moved to withdraw life support after three weeks as it was in the best interests of the child.
What followed was a traumatic and heart-wrenching fight through the courts by Archie’s family to prevent this from happening. A fight that they finally lost on 1st August, when the Court of Appeal rejected a request to postpone ending his treatment and his care was ended at midday the next day. On 6th August 2022 outside the Royal London Hospital Archie’s mother announced that her son had died.
The Blackout Challenge is not as new as you may think, as it actually started back in 2008 as a choking game, but it is now doing the rounds on TikTok and therefore reaching an audience in a different mode. It is not known who created Blackout Challenge, but in 2016 a report circulated that warned about the choking game making a return to school playgrounds via YouTube. Any videos that have since been posted on TikTok of users trying to attempt the challenge have been blocked by TikTok, as those looking to watch the horrific challenge take place by searching Blackout Challenge receive a notice that the term has been banned for violating guidelines.
However, in July 2022, two parents sued the social network TikTok in the US, claiming its “dangerous” algorithms are to blame for their children’s deaths. The lawsuit claimed that “at all times relevant, TikTok’s algorithm was designed to promote ‘TikTok Challenges’ to young users to increase their engagement and maximise TikTok’s profits”. (source: the Irish Mirror)
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a short-form, video-sharing app that allows users to create and share short videos, on any topic.
Released almost six years ago in September 2016 (2017 in the UK), TikTok has quickly become one of the biggest video-focused social media platforms right now with more than 1 billion users. Market leader Facebook was the first social network to surpass 1 billion registered accounts and currently sits at more than 2.89 billion monthly active users.
Owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance, TikTok quickly rose to global popularity after the acquisition of Musical.ly in 2018. After the acquisition, TikTok not only consolidated its global audience but also increased its first-time installs by almost 400 per cent year on year, reaching 740 million new users in 2021. As of January 2022, the United States was the country with the largest TikTok audience by far, with approximately 136.5 million users engaging with the popular social video platform. The UK was 12th with an audience of 23.38 million users.
How does TikTok work?
TikTok was specifically designed with older teenagers in mind, and the hashtags invite you to take part and set challenges. Any user not sure what to create has not only topics but tools at their disposal, from image filters to options to use other users’ music or visuals. As of 10th February 2022, the TikTok maximum video length is 10 minutes. This is a huge change from the previous maximum limit of 3 minutes and an even bigger jump when you consider that the app wouldn’t allow videos longer than 15 seconds in the beginning. However, a study performed by a marketing firm reported that a quarter of the highest performing videos on TikTok were between 21 and 34 seconds in length.
The platform uses algorithms to show users different video content based on their interests and other videos they watch, which means that not everyone’s ‘For You Page’ is the same. The more engagements and views a TikTok video receive, the more likely it will be served to larger audiences. Positive indicators include:
- Completions and re-watches.
There are a few factors that do not influence how the TikTok algorithm ranks content; these include follower count and whether the user has had previous high-performing videos. This means that even if someone only has a handful of followers, or has never posted to TikTok before, there is still an opportunity for a video to go viral.
What age is TikTok suitable for?
Although people of all ages use TikTok, the official minimum age for a TikTok user is 13 years old; however, TikTok doesn’t use any age verification tools when new users sign up. This means that any tech-savvy under 13-year-old can sign up for an account without parental approval, and unknown to their parents. If they do this then they may have access to explicit and inappropriate content without restriction.
TikTok official guidance states that:
How safe is TikTok for kids?
TikTok is not considered safe for children and should never be used without parental supervision. The new TikTok 2021 update will now default new accounts for users aged 13-15 to “private”, meaning they are restricted from DMs and interactions from strangers. However, this relies on the user entering their correct date of birth when signing up for an account. According to TikTok, “with a private TikTok account, only someone who the user approves as a follower can view their videos.”
However, in reality, with a quick hashtag search, a child will have access to mature content, as well as suggestive themes and challenges. With TikTok being mostly based on music and video, profanity and suggestive clothing/dancing are the most obvious sources of adult content.
What are the dangers of TikTok for kids?
Some of the most severe dangers to children of TikTok were discussed at the start of this article; many TikTok challenges can pose very real safety dangers, and not only to children. There is always suggestive content mixed into social media content; however, some themes are much more mature than their 16+ rating would suggest, with much of it of a sexual nature. Teens are often more impulsive and more likely to do things online that they wouldn’t normally do, especially when it comes to peer approval. Because of the increase and promotion of inappropriate content, TikTok has been banned in several countries, including China, where the app originated, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
TikTok can be a creative outlet for young people as it allows them to learn about video editing and discover new interests; however, it can also have other harmful effects. As with any social media platform, posting videos and pictures regularly leaves your child open to negative reactions and harsh comments. TikTok’s comment and messaging features are home to online harassment, cyberbullying and predatory messaging. If your child’s account is public, this opens them up to the eyes and messages of strangers. Most children on TikTok often want their videos to be liked, and this makes them vulnerable to safety threats online, such as sexual exploitation. Cyberbullies will troll others online and make rude or hateful comments on their videos. TikTok gives users the option to approve comments before they are visible, but this doesn’t keep the users from reading them, which can be harmful to a child’s mental health.
These can have a huge impact on your child’s self-esteem, body image and confidence. In some instances, it can lead to:
Whilst those above are extreme cases, young users and even influencers on the platform have expressed concerns over the negative comments they receive and how it affects their daily lives and their mental wellbeing.
All social media apps collect user data, and this is also true of TikTok. This is a quote directly from TikTok’s page on privacy, “We share your data with our third-party service providers we rely on to help provide you with the Platform. These providers include cloud storage providers and other IT service providers. We also share your information with our business partners, advertisers, analytics and search engine providers…”. However, when the app isn’t being used, it is still collecting information from your phone clipboard. That means if you or your child copy and paste sensitive information such as passwords or private conversations, TikTok is noting and storing that information – a very real danger to privacy and security.
Does TikTok have parental controls?
There are six security settings that can help you to keep TikTok safe for your child and prevent them from seeing anything that might worry or upset them:
- Family pairing – This allows you to connect your child’s account with your own. It gives you access to parental controls to help manage who they can speak to and how long they can spend on the app.
- Private account – Setting your child’s account to private means that only approved followers will be able to watch their videos.
- Restricted mode – This feature helps to filter out videos that may contain inappropriate or adult topics and stop them from appearing on your child’s ‘For You Page’.
- Comment filters – Enable you to manage who can comment on your child’s videos and stop inappropriate comments from appearing on their feed.
- Direct messages – This can help them manage who can contact them privately on the app. You can choose who can send them direct messages by selecting ‘Friends only’ or ‘No one’.
- Daily screen time – This setting allows you to manage how long your child can spend on the app. You can set a daily time limit, and once it’s up you’ll need to enter a passcode to keep using the platform.
What safety measures can parents take on TikTok?
First and foremost, parents need to understand the app and its functions, and TikTok provides a parents’ guide to help. By understanding the potential of the app, this will alert parents to any likely dangers and security issues so that they can put strategies in place to minimise them. Knowing how to block inappropriate content and report it to TikTok is crucial.
Talking regularly with your child about their social media usage is the greatest tool to help keep them safe online when using TikTok. It also means that when they do have any worries, they are more likely to come and speak to you about them. Try talking to your child about their favourite music, videos and creators on TikTok, as this will give you an idea of what content they enjoy and what they are engaging with.
Parents can set a Bedtime Block, which prevents users from receiving notifications at a specific time. For example, for 13- to 15-year-olds, the block starts at 9 pm, and for 16- to 17-year-olds, it is at 10 pm.
When your child wants to register with TikTok, oversee their application to ensure that they are submitting accurate information, particularly their date of birth, as this will impact the security level settings. Some children, left to their own devices, may enter a date of birth that makes them older than their real age in order to access a wider range of content which may potentially be harmful.
Ensure that your child never shares their full name with strangers; usernames with aliases are even better. Also ensure that they never share or post their phone number, address or even town where they live.
Ensure that your child never sends pictures to someone they don’t know.
How can parents monitor their kid’s activity on TikTok?
As with many areas, there is always a fine line between monitoring for safety reasons and spying on your child’s activities. It is always a good idea to work with a child and be as open as possible to monitor that what they are doing online is safe.
Some suggestions include:
- Have a list of all of your child’s usernames, passwords and passcodes, but only use them if you suspect something is wrong.
- Have your child friend you on any social networks that you both use including TikTok. Family pairing tools can link your child’s account to yours. If you need to, set up a Snapchat or TikTok account, if only to monitor their account.
- Check your child’s phone for privacy settings. Android and iPhones offer different features.
- Encourage your child to use the control video setting to manage their viewers. Strangers are always looking to connect with children on TikTok, and this may be a safety concern, so working with your child to ensure that these controls are utilised is important.
- Ask your child about who they are talking to / interacting with, and ask questions about how they met and what sort of things they talk about. Remind them that not everyone online is who they say they are and that they should never arrange to meet someone offline.
- We tell children to be careful about the pictures they share online; however, parents should also model this good behaviour and lead by example.
Should parents be concerned about TikTok’s security?
Over the past few years, security researchers have found multiple security vulnerabilities within the app, and since TikTok has access to a lot of personal information, it has become the favourite route for many hackers. One way that hackers take advantage of TikTok is by sending users a text message that allows them to access their accounts. Another is leveraging the fact that TikTok uses an insecure HTTP connection to deliver videos instead of the more secure option, HTTPS. This allows cybercriminals to manipulate users’ feeds and plant unsolicited content that could be misleading or disturbing, especially to young TikTok users.
Using TikTok regularly, either as a consumer or content creator, increases your and your child’s digital footprint. On its own, this poses great risks such as being more prone to phishing attacks and stalking. This is an important reason why you should care about your and your child’s digital footprint. You should also be aware that in the future, using TikTok could stand in the way of your child working in their chosen field, as many organisations may have concerns about who has access to highly personal and detailed information about you or your child.
Whilst TikTok’s user demographic is predominately 13 years to 40 years, the app was designed for late teens and above, and as such the content often reflects the interests of this age group, so may be inappropriate for younger users. Careful monitoring by parents can enable younger teens to enjoy participating on the app; however, it is really not suitable for any child younger than 13 years.
The problem is that under-13s will want to watch funny videos on their phone and may pester to be allowed to download and register, or more concerning may download and sign up without a parent’s knowledge. There are similar apps available for younger users such as Popjam, which may be worth steering them towards until they become mature enough to begin exercising initiative and start protecting themselves online.
If you’re worried about something a child or young person may have experienced online, you can contact the NSPCC helpline for free support and advice. Call on 0808 800 5000 or contact online.