An Illinois father posted a warning to other parents after he says he discovered disturbing requests for his 7-year-old daughter from another user of popular app TikTok. The app is described as the “world’s largest creative platform,” and allows users to share videos in categories such as music, comedy and fashion & beauty, among others. It also has a messaging feature, which the family found out about the hard way.
Her father posted screenshots of a chat with a stranger claiming to be 9, who asked his daughter “how old are you” and “send me some pics.”
“She used this app to connect with her cousins and make goofy duets of songs together,” her father wrote. “We have accepted friends of theirs and our daughter believed this was another one. I never thought of someone pretending to be 9 to gain access to my child.”
The requests continued and the screenshots show the stranger insistently asking for photos “without clothes.”
After seeing the conversation on the app, her father responded, saying that he’s a police officer and that he had turned the person’s IP address over to authorities. Despite stories like these, the apps popularity has grown to over 1,000,000,000 (billion) ACTIVE users In over 154 countries.
So, what is the appeal to kids and should we allow It? The simple answer: that is a family decision and weighing out the information should be a part of that decision.
What IS TikTok
TikTok is a free social media app that lets you watch, create, and also share videos. There are more than 100 million users in the United States alone because TikTok has innovative video editing features, viral dances, and celebrity cameos that make it so popular.
While much of TikTok is harmless fun, there are real concerns about kids using the app. As with any social network, you have to use privacy settings to limit how much information you and your kids are sharing. Because you can post videos immediately without first reviewing or editing them, kids can upload impulsively.
What kind of Content Is On TikTok?
• Video creation: Create, edit, and post videos.
• Effects: Apply filters and other Snapchat-like effects to videos.
• Messaging: Have text-message-style conversations with others.
• Video viewing: Watch others’ videos, and like, comment on, or share them.
• Profile viewing: View others’ profiles, which consist of a profile pic, following/follower stats, and a feed of their posts.
• Livestreaming: Stream videos in real time.
A lot of teens use TikTok to post videos of themselves lip-syncing and/or dancing to their favorite songs (that’s how Baby Ariel got started). Some sing or play instruments along with another song. Some create comedic skits, while others make DIY (do-it-yourself) videos with music in the background. Many make videos and duets to participate in a trend or meme.
Are there parental controls?
As long as a user has access to their account, they can make their account public, direct message anyone, and view any videos. But TikTok does offer Family Pairing, which allows parents to remotely disable DMs, set time limits, and enable content restrictions, rather than having to do everything from their kids’ devices. The catch: parents must have their own TikTok accounts (boosting TikTok’s numbers), and their kids must allow them to link the accounts to each other (a privilege they can revoke at any time). But it’s worth being on any app your children are on anyway in order to keep an eye on things and understand what they’re experiencing. If you have kids on the app, make sure to enable the feature right away.
TikTok also offers a feature called Digital Well-Being, which is accessed via settings. It offers a Restricted Mode (which uses an algorithm to attempt to limit videos that may not be appropriate for all audiences) and Screen Time Management (which limits the user to no more than two hours on the app per day). Both of these are protected by a passcode (different from the account password), meaning a parent can set the passcode and not give it to the child. A caveat, though: If a child gets annoyed by this and hasn’t really built up their account, they can easily just log out of the account and create a new one without their parents knowing. This is why it’s important not to simply put strict boundaries on a phone without talking about them with your teen first. Safety Settings can be found here.
What Makes it Popular with Kids?
One reason why teens and preteens like TikTok is the chance to get famous or, at the very least, to get other people’s attention. It’s also worth mentioning that users do get money when fans give them emojis, and some users reportedly earn $25,000 per month through brand partnerships and gifts (emojis).So some teens might be enticed by the prospect of making fun videos into a job, rather than having to go to college and/or get a “real” job someday. For example, mega-famous TikTokker and YouTuber Emma Chamberlain doesn’t plan to go to college because she’s already accomplished so much simply through her social media presence: she’s an entrepreneur, content creator, and podcast host, to name a few of her job titles.
Predictably, part of the allure of TikTok is peer pressure. A lot of kids want to be on the app because their friends are on it and because they want to watch popular TikTok personalities. They don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t know what everyone’s talking about. Teenagers nowadays also enjoy watching people do various activities online. An example of this is YouTube star PewDiePie, who’s gained a massive following by posting videos of himself playing video games (which is also a type of video content found on TikTok).
The best way to find out why your kids use (or want to use) TikTok is simply to ask them. That will help you to best understand the underlying drives and needs it fulfills for them, as well as how to plan conversations about the app. The primary dangers involved with TikTok have to do with how easy it is to view mature content, how easy it can be to connect with online predators, and the potential for cyberbullying. We don’t want to be fearmongers, but we do think it’s important to mention some of the harm people have experienced through Musical.ly and now TikTok.
One dad in Idaho Falls caught his eleven-year-old daughter sending pictures of herself in her underwear to men who had been asking her for inappropriate videos. Another eleven-year-old girl received rape threats and other sexually graphic messages. In her case, her account was private, and she got those messages after accepting a request from a stranger who she thought was someone she knew. Perhaps saddest of all is the story of a ten-year-girl in Aurora, CO who committed suicide after someone recorded a fight she was in at school and posted it on Musical.ly. These are horror stories that describe some worst-case scenarios. But what was our experience with TikTok? The majority of the videos we saw could be described as “fluff.” Most weren’t offensive, nor were they particularly clever. They were videos of kids lip-syncing to songs or acting out scenes and trying to be funny. Something that seems clear is that many people who use TikTok want attention and validation.
While TikTok won’t allow certain explicit word searches, one of the first accounts that was recommended to us as soon as we signed up was highly inappropriate. We also saw a girl who was livestreaming and swearing at her users. She used the f-word frequently, as did some of the people commenting in the chat. Other responses to her video were “she is bi” and “r u a girl,” to which she responded derisively, “There’s more than one gender.” One particularly disturbing trend is the “boyfriend p*rn check” (watch at your own discretion) most popular in February and March of 2020. Here’s how it works: a girl plays a tune that’s used in p*rn videos (each TikTok uses the same tune), and the idea is that if your boyfriend smiles at the song, he watches porn. And of course, this is all filmed for a “funny” video and posted to TikTok for the whole world to see.
Another popular trend from March and April of 2020 was the “surprising my boyfriend naked” challenge, in which women record their boyfriend’s (or husband’s) reaction to their naked bodies. The videos never actually show any nudity, but the towel dropping and reaction reveals enough for the imagination. The takeaway here is that, though trends like the “boyfriend porn check” and “surprising my boyfriend naked” will fade in popularity, other trends will take their place, and it’s impossible to screen them all or keep young social media users from seeing them or implanting the idea that these things are "okay" and "normal" for dating couples. This also makes regular conversations about TikTok even more necessary.
It’s impossible to mention all the things that might be considered dangerous on TikTok. But know that the majority of the content we saw was not graphic. We encountered plenty of videos that were innocuous, many that were boring, and several that showed some talent. But the graphic content we did stumble on was pretty easy to find (not to mention all of the songs that are available with explicit lyrics).
So What Can I Do TO Help My Student To Be Safe?
• Make their accounts private.
• Make sure they don’t accept requests from anyone they don’t know.
• Block certain accounts if needed.
• Report inappropriate content immediately.
• Share their accounts with them.
• Utilize the features available through Family Sharing and Digital WellBeing.
• Have conversations with them about online safety, identity, worth, value, etc.
• Continue having conversations with them about online safety and their use of TikTok.
You’ll notice that these measures only go so far. The girl we mentioned earlier who saw sexually explicit content and received threats thought she was accepting a follow request from someone she knew.
Anastasia Basil, recounts some of the gut-wrenching things she saw on the app and even goes as far as to say that porn is not the worst thing on it. Read her article here. As with anything, it’s up to you to take into account your children’s ages, personalities, and maturity levels when deciding whether or not they can handle TikTok. Because of the easy access to mature content, we recommend that parents don’t allow children under age 13 to use the app, and it might even be better to wait until they’re older (CommonSense Media recommends 16 years old). Below are some suggestions for questions to ask your kids if you’re considering allowing them to use TikTok, as well as if you are already allowing them to use it.
What Else Can I Do To Help My Kid?
We found this suggestion from mom Anastasia Basil (the one who thinks porn isn’t the worst thing on the app) an interesting idea worth considering:
We parents tell our children that if they stay off all social media—yes, ALL social media, so no Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and so on— until they’re sixteen, they will each get a check for $1,600 to spend however they want. Crazy, but also fascinating. We reward our kids for so many other achievements, so why not, as Basil says, reward them for “winning at peer pressure”? Or, at the very least, perhaps that idea can inspire us to come up with more creative ways of helping our kids have healthy relationships with their phones and social media, rather than simply being the “evil” parents who always say no to the things that seem so important to them.
It’s helpful to remember that TikTok is a product of two good desires God gave us: to create and to be in community—and it actually is pretty fun to make TikTok videos. Besides the adult content on the app, the main problem is that there’s a huge temptation to get attention in the form of fans, comments, and likes. Growing your fan base is much easier to do when your account is public than when it is private. And a public account comes with a lot of dangers, especially for children.
As Basil puts it: “If your child does not maintain an online self, chances are her social circle is small—friends from school, neighbors, family. If she has a rough day at school, a bell sets her free each afternoon. “The jerks who taunted her at lunch aren’t coming home with her for the night. She has space to think, to be with you, to read, to hug her dog, to recover, to get brave. Online, there is no school bell, there is no escape; she exists globally, and so do her mistakes. The ridicule is permanent.”
If you decide to let your kids use TikTok, have consistent conversations with them about it. Make sure they’re educated on the dangers of connecting with strangers online and that they have accountability. And don’t forget to pray, which is always the most important step you can take and the easiest one to neglect. You can’t control your teens or protect them from every peril, but God will always know what’s going on in their lives. Rely on the Holy Spirit first and foremost!
Discuss these questions with your teen
• Why do you want to use TikTok? What do you plan to do on the app?
• How do your friends use TikTok?
• What are ways you can use the app creatively?
• Do you think the app will help you have better community? Why or why not?
• Do you know the dangers of using TikTok?
• How are you going to protect yourself while using the app?
• How are you going to keep yourself accountable for the way you use it?
• Do you think it’s worth continuing to use TikTok if you accidentally come across graphic content? Why or why not?
• Why do you think people are willing to spend a good chunk of money sending emojis to strangers? Would you do this yourself?
-taken from excerpts of Axis's Guide to TikTok