Calling TikTok big would be an understatement. In the United States alone, more than 138 million active users spend time on the app each month. In terms of global reach, more people use TikTok actively than Snapchat, Pinterest, or even Twitter. And by far, the biggest percentage of users are aged 19 and under.
However, with the app being so popular among kids and teens, many parents are raising some valid concerns. Namely, is TikTok a safe platform for their children to use? What kind of harm, if any, can come to their loved ones if they are on the app every single day?
In this article, we will go over some of the potential risks of kids using TikTok, with a special focus on what parents and guardians can do to keep them safe.
As late as 2022, the FBI expressed concerns that TikTok could pose a threat to national security. And this wasn’t the first time that the app was covered by national news regarding safety concerns. Two years earlier, the app received a $5.7 million fine for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or COPPA.
Of course, the parent company of TikTok has since introduced a range of changes regarding its safety policy, and we will cover those in a bit. Nevertheless, parents are still concerned. After all, considering TikTok’s history with safety, they don’t have a lot of faith in the app improving going forward.
According to current statistics, kids and teens are more likely to experience cyberbullying on TikTok than on Facebook, with the possibility being around 64%. Anything from nasty comments to the misuse of the Duet and React features can expose young TikTokers to abusers and harassers.
The effects of cyberbullying on children and teenagers are severe. Young TikTok users can end up sad, depressed, isolated, and anxious due to all of the negative attention they’re receiving through the app. In certain extreme cases, bullying can lead to self-harm and even suicide.
Teens who spend a lot of time on TikTok eventually become hooked on it. The app starts to eat up a lot of their time, and too much usage can cause a variety of mental health issues. For instance, due to how competitive some challenges on the app can be, the users often feel a push to create better, more appealing content that will get them views. If they don’t get that satisfaction, the resulting stress often leads to anxiety.
Alternatively, certain users share their personal stories via TikTok, especially the ones who suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and similar conditions. Considering how prominent cyberbullying is, the negative attention on TikTok can lead to the teens harming themselves, or worse.
Despite the safety features that TikTok has implemented lately, kids may still see inappropriate content appear from time to time. By browsing the For You page, kids get exposed to whatever the algorithm pushes on them at that moment. And more often than not, they will run into content that’s either offensive, violent, sexual, graphic, or some combination of the four. Let’s not forget that TikTok is a huge platform. With millions of videos posted daily, it’s only a matter of time before something unsavory reaches the children’s feeds.
By far, the biggest, most dangerous problem with TikTok is that it’s a breeding ground for predators. Children like to participate in different challenges on the app, and quite a few of them, such as dances, are participatory in nature. In other words, they involve two users interacting in video format.
Using these challenges, predators can prey on innocent children and get them to perform different acts for their amusement. Alternatively, they can send them explicit messages or even try to groom them. Sadly, the problem seems to be getting worse. In 2021, more than 154,000 reports of predatory behavior were sent from TikTok to the police. And considering the app’s growth, it will take a long time before this problem is rooted out.
As stated earlier, TikTok has addressed these issues in the past. In 2023, the company’s policy on underage users is fairly straightforward. Depending on how old they are, the users will have different levels of access to the app.
Firstly, if the user is 13 and under, they can only use a private account that the parents supervise. Moreover, every single bit of content is curated for a younger audience. And most importantly, these users cannot post videos or comment on anything.
Teens between 13 and 15 also only have access to a private account, but with some features enabled. For example, they can receive comments on videos, but only from their friends. Furthermore, other users cannot duet with them.
Finally, users who are over 16 can live-stream and post content. But since they are still underage, they cannot send or receive virtual gifts via the platform. That feature is only available to adults, i.e., users who are 18 and older.
Aside from these restrictions, there are other measures in place to prevent underage users from being exposed to the platform. For instance, there is a time limit of 60 minutes per day for anyone under 18. So, in order to continue using TikTok past that limit, the users have to input a specific 4-digit password.
Broadly speaking, adult TikTok users can set their own time limit using the app. However, if an account is marked as Child’s, the 4-digit unlocking will only be available to the related Parent account. While the time limit is in effect, the underage user won’t be able to log out of their account or even switch to a different one.
In order to help parents keep their kids and teens safe, TikTok introduced a feature called Family Pairing back in 2020. Since then, it has been an invaluable tool in maintaining accounts of underage family members and customizing them to their specific needs. Family Pairing offers a variety of features:
- Screen Time Management enables manual setup regarding how long our child will spend on TikTok per day;
- Direct Message Access can either limit or outright prevent others from DMing our kids;
- Restricted Mode stops the For You page from showing specific adult-only results while our children are using the app.
Of course, we should stress a key detail regarding Family Pairing. Namely, kids and teens that don’t agree with parental control of their TikTok account can always reinstall the app, effectively messing up the settings. No method is entirely foolproof, so we have to remain vigilant even with Family Pairing and similar safety measures.