At ProPrivacy, we aim to educate people about internet privacy and security. In this guide we answer the questions - is TikTok safe for kids? Is it secure? And is there a way to mitigate against potential risks?
TikTok is already one of the most popular social media platforms in the world, and its popularity has only increased in recent months due to COVID-19 related self-isolation. In the first 3 months of 2020, TikTok downloads surpassed downloads of Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger.
However, several security, privacy, and safety issues have been raised about the app. Parents have raised concerns about adult content being shared with younger children on the app. Some even mentioned that their children are being contacted by strangers through TikTok.
In the US, TikTok has been banned in some military branches due to security concerns about the app. This, of course, increased the media coverage about the app's vulnerabilities and also led to more confusion.
Is TikTok safe for children?
TikTok is an app that has been under the microscope when it comes to endangering children. The first thing to remember is that TikTok is an app aimed at discovery and notoriety. TikTok users make videos they hope will be watched by as many people as possible.
Many people have risen to fame on TikTok, and it is natural for young people to want to watch videos by emerging musicians, artists, comedians, and other influencers. For some children, the desire to gain followers is also a primary motivation for interacting with the platform, and this can cause concerns for parental guardians.
In its default state, TikTok is often considered dangerous for minors because of how it can expose them to unwanted contacts and content. Unless specific settings are enabled, TikTok will allow videos uploaded by children to be viewed by anybody. And if a video becomes popular, it is possible that it could go viral and be served to millions of people by TikTok’s algorithm.
To make a TikTok account private, follow these steps:
- Head to your profile, which appears on the bottom right of the app.
- Go to Settings. This is the icon with three dots in the top right corner of your profile.
- Click "privacy and security".
- Enable private account.
TikTok, like a lot of social media platforms, harbors cyberstalkers, cyberbullies, and predators. Unless a child’s account is carefully monitored and the default settings are altered, it is possible that a child could be contacted inappropriately in the comments of videos or in private messages.
A step that you can take to ensure that your children won't be contacted by strangers is to disable the Allow others to find me function. To do this, follow these steps:
- Go to yours or your child's profile.
- Click Settings in the right-hand corner (the three dots).
- Go to "privacy and security" settings.
- Turn off the "allow others to find me".
Another concern is that children may see adult content. Some children even set up their account using a fake date of birth. Doing this will result in the platform automatically serving them videos that are meant for adults. These kinds of videos may be highly inappropriate and could contain abusive, violent, sexually explicit, or other kinds of extreme content.
Other ways to secure your Childs TikTok Account
We have a list of all the other ways you can secure your child's TikTok account in a section in this guide.
Dangerous TikTok challenges
It is also worth noting that children may actually create concerning content, and this content may be served to them by the AI even if their account is set up as safely as possible with the correct DoB.
In the past, various concerning challenges in which kids encourage each other to film themselves doing strange and dangerous tasks have emerged:
- Skullbreaker Challenge: This challenge has kids jump in the air while their friends kick out their legs from under them and has resulted in many injuries including skull fractures.
- Concussion Challenge: In this ridiculous challenge, kids crowd around in a circle with their heads down before throwing an object in the air and waiting for it to land on someone.
- The Plug Challenge: In this challenge, kids film themselves carefully pushing a coin behind a partially inserted phone charger. The result? Sparks, blackened plug sockets, and the potential for a house fire and death by electrocution.
- The Cereal Challenge: In this awful challenge, kids (and adults) lay on their back and allow their mouth to be used as a cereal bowl, naturally with a massive risk of choking.
Many other challenges have made the rounds on TikTok, and they can cause very serious harm to your child. So be sure to talk to your child to explain that these types of challenges are insane. And that the people passing around such videos are not to be trusted and should never, ever be emulated. Being famous for being an idiot - or dead - is not something to be proud of. So, be sure to ingrain this into your children as much as is humanly possible.
TikTok Family Pairing
Due to complaints raised about TikTok and its potential to endanger children, TikTok’s developers recently rolled out new parental controls for the platform.
The Family Pairing mode allows parents to link their TikTok account to their child’s account.
This allows parents to turn off or limit who their child can direct message. And to turn on TikTok’s “restricted” mode to limit the potential for inappropriate content to be served.
This is a massive step in the right direction. However, because TikTok uses AI to serve content to children, it is possible that the algorithms will still serve videos that parents consider inappropriate.
Content created by children will be served to other children if that content is popular, because this is how the platform is designed. If children do not flag that content as dangerous, risky, or inappropriate, then it could disseminate rapidly and be seen by thousands of children.
For this reason, parents should not expect the new pairing feature to work as a catch-all that can be set and forgotten. Instead, parents will need to carefully monitor their child’s interactions with the platform and should encourage open, honest conversations about any content that pops up on their feed that concerns them or seems inappropriate.
TikTok scams to be aware of
Since TikTok began becoming popular over a year ago, it has become infested with fraudsters and scams. Many fake accounts exist whose sole aim is to befriend users, to phish them of information or trick them into following dodgy links. The open nature of TikTok means that you can potentially be approached by anyone - including hackers.
Phishing and data theft
Cybercriminals often use carefully constructed scripts to trick their victims, these are very cleverly designed to use people’s emotions, desires, or fears against them. These kinds of scams primarily rely on playing the numbers game to eventually stumble on a victim who believes the lies.
The first thing to remember is that you must never divulge any personal information to anybody you meet on TikTok. Even fairly trivial information might come in handy to a hacker.
If you say the wrong thing, hand over your email address, or provide other seemingly unimportant information, it is possible that you could end up being victimized by identity theft or secondary spear phishing attempts.
Fake accounts are usually designed to entice people and are often purposefully made to look misleadingly attractive. Romance scams lure people into fairly long lasting conversations that eventually lead to the victim being fleeced of information or money.
If someone on TikTok starts to make you feel attached to them, and they later ask you for money, public transport tickets, or some other kind of consumer product such as a new phone, this should instantly ring alarm bells.
Remember, never to hand over your PayPal details to someone you meet on TikTok or anywhere else online. And never, ever hand over your bank details or your card information.
Dodgy links and “premium” Snapchats
Another popular TikTok scam is to lure people into following links to dating websites, so they can profit from the link juice. On other occasions, scammers will use stolen photos and videos of attractive people to trick TikTok users into paying for ‘premium’ Snapchat access, only to be scammed of the money when they find out the person never really existed.
The important thing to remember here, is that if a TikTok user is trying to lure you over to a different platform, this could be a sign that they are attempting to scam you. Platforms like Snapchat do not require users to sign up using a phone number, and for this reason they are generally considered a better place to pull off scams.
Get more follower scams
Another scam to watch out for are users and services that promise to provide free followers. These kinds of websites and apps are designed to steal user information from them to use their credentials to hack their accounts or to perform secondary phishing exploits.
In this scam, fraudsters leverage fake accounts that appear to belong to important influencers to trick TikTok users into paying for services. On one occasion, a mother was fleeced of $4000 when her daughter paid for ‘coins’ to do lip synching with her favourite pop star.
TikTok security issues?
You will probably be aware of the security issues associated with TikTok.
In December 2019, the US government banned all military personnel from using TikTok on their devices. The reason? TikTok is a Chinese-developed app thought to work closely with the Chinese government for the purposes of surveillance and espionage.
What is important to understand, is that the videos that people upload to TikTok are purportedly being leveraged to train up facial recognition algorithms belonging to the Chinese government. In addition, any data that is collected by the app is sent back to servers in China. This includes device level identifiers and location data that could allow the Chinese government to create a database of your daily habits.
It is worth noting that security researchers have previously discovered vulnerabilities in the platform that could allow hackers to intercept information and content, to take over accounts, and to make it seem like a TikTok account is endorsing particular videos.
According to those researchers, for example, hackers could make it seem as if someone's account was endorsing videos that propagated misinformation concerning COVID-19 (or other topics).
Is TikTok bad for privacy?
Whether you are concerned that TikTok is collecting data for the Chinese government will largely come down to your own personal threat model. The firm has previously claimed that US citizens’ data is actually stored on ByteDance servers located in Singapore. This, TikTok claims, stops it having to comply with Chinese data requests.
However, detractors believe that the Chinese government has too much power over Chinese companies - and that there is too much risk of user data being harvested for surveillance purposes. One thing worth remembering is that TikTok added facial recognition capacities to its platform last year. As a result, it is collecting facial biometrics that could theoretically put users at risk if the data were hacked, leaked, or passed to the Chinese government.
It has also been claimed that ByteDance even harvests the videos that users decide not to upload. This means that even videos that users decide never to publish are collected and stored by the Chinese social media firm, without their knowledge or consent.
At the end of the day, the Snowden revelations revealed that US firms are just as bad when it comes to invading people’s privacy and working with governments to perform surveillance. Whether you consider what TikTok does to be worse for your privacy is largely up to you. Some people might even feel they prefer the Chinese to hold their data, rather than their own government. Of course, ultimately this is a decision that only you can make.
Your own government is supposed to primarily desire your protection, whereas a foreign government’s interests are strategically aligned with overcoming the national security of your nation state. Make of this what you will.
How to protect yourself and your children on TikTok
When it comes to TikTok, specifically, it is important that you carefully alter the privacy settings on your child’s TikTok account.
- Firstly, ensure that their account and uploaded videos are only visible to friends.
- Next, ensure that their account can only receive and send messages from contacts they are friends with. In addition, you may want to stop your child’s videos being recommended to random users. To do so, turn off Allow others to find me in the privacy settings.
- If your child wants their videos to be discoverable, then you should at least tighten up who can comment on those videos to stop them from being exposed to cyberbullying or hateful comments. Under Who can post comments, select Friends or Off. Alternatively, set up a keyword filter to disallow comments with particular words or use TikTok’s automated moderator by selecting Filter spam and offensive comments.
- To stop other people from downloading and holding onto your child’s videos indefinitely, head to the settings menu and for Allow download select Off. To block specific users who appear to be a bad influence or of concern; go on that contact’s profile, tap the three dot icon in the top right, and then select Block followed by Confirm.
- Next, check your child’s account to ensure that it has been set up with the correct date of birth. In addition, check which accounts they are following to ensure that they aren't exposing themselves to content that is inappropriate.
- With that done, use the Family Pairing feature to connect your account to your child’s account.
This will allow you to monitor what your child watches and to monitor and disable direct messages. Using Family Pairing, ensure that your child can no longer access adult content by turning on Restricted Mode. However, please remember that turning on the above privacy and security settings does not necessarily fix everything.
- TikTok serves videos using AI, and it is possible that your child may still be exposed to inappropriate videos uploaded by users their own age. So be sure to not only set up their account safely but also to continue monitoring carefully concerning content and friendships.