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  • Narda Skov

What is TikTok? Is it safe? How does it work? Everything you need to know about this popular app.

Happy New Year! In this new year, I have promised myself that as a parent I would learn at least one new thing a month about something my kids are doing or using. Whether it is a new app, a new dance, a new book (or even a new food item) I am vowing to learn it. Over the holidays as my three children came home, there were constant giggles and heads in screens viewing TikTok. In my adult educator brain which is primed to give warnings and worry, I could see their enjoyment and engagement with one another. What is TikTok and should we worry? In doing my research I came across this amazing article from Common Sense Media - a San Francisco-based media literacy company that has the mission of educating youth, parents, and educators about what we see on our screens. I have had the privilege of working with them on many California statewide meetings and always am impressed with the breadth of their knowledge and consideration of this ever-changing landscape of apps and social media.

I am reprinting this article because it answers many of the questions I have about TikTok, and want to share resources for parents that offer great recommendations for what you can do to mitigate the potential pitfalls of social media. As always, moderation is the key and a healthy balance of on and off screens is the best advice. and continue to be cautious about too much screen time.

Key takeaways and Conversation Starters are Things To Talk About and four questions to ask your kids (no matter their age). If you do nothing else after reading this article, these four questions will spark a great conversation with your children:

1. What do you love most about TikTok?

2. Do you share videos publicly or only with friends?

3. Have you seen or heard anything that made you uncomfortable?

4. What do you do in these situations?

What is TikTok? TikTok is a social network for sharing user-generated videos, mostly of people lip-synching to popular songs. Users can create and upload their own videos, many of which feature lip-synching. You can also browse and interact with other users' content, which covers a wide range of topics, songs, and styles. These videos can be grouped by hashtags, which often correspond to challenges, memes, or current events (like #pandemiclife.)

How Safe is TikTok? Using any social network can be risky, but it's possible for kids to safely use the app with adult supervision (and a private account). TikTok has different rules for different ages:

  • Users under the age of 13 cannot post videos or comment, and content is curated for a younger audience.

  • For kids ages 13 to 15, accounts are private by default. Only friends can comment on videos, and other users cannot duet (more later) with your videos.

  • Only users ages 16 and older can live stream and use direct messaging, and only users over 18 can buy, send, or receive virtual gifts.

  • TikTok is best for youth over age 15+.

  • TikTok does have a section that includes additional safety and privacy features for under 13. Bypassing the safety feature is quite easy, however, all that is required is entering a new birth date, so the safety features are not strong.

TikTok also offers some tools for parents and caregivers to limit how much time kids spend on the app and what kids can see. Parents and caregivers can also use Restricted Mode to reduce mature content, or Family Safety Mode to pair their account with their kid's account to control settings completely.

How does TikTok work? TikTok users sign up with a phone number, an email address, or a third-party account such as Facebook and Instagram. Once logged in, you can find videos by searching for popular creators, categories (like comedy, animals, sports), and hashtags. Or you can use your phone contacts or social media followers to find friends already on the app. This is the main difference using TikTok, all videos and contacts are available at all times - no inviting or sharing needed to gain access. Many kids on TikTok like to create videos, but plenty of people don't post themselves- they just use the app to find and follow content creators.

Is TikTok appropriate for kids? TikTok can be a kid-friendly experience if you supervise your kids, use safety settings, and stick to songs you already know. But TikTok's emphasis on popular music means many videos include swearing and explicit sexual lyrics, so it may not be age-appropriate for kids to use on their own. Even with limits, it's easy to find graphic videos, though TikTok won't let you search for objectionable content such as 'porn'.

As with social media apps, TikTok does encourage people to buy items. Users can also earn TikTok Reward points by inviting friends to download the app, and they can redeem those points for coupons from brands like Sephora and Uber.

How can I use TikTok with my kids? You can provide a buffer between kids and iffy content by watching with your kids and making videos together. Offer to hold the camera or turn it around to do a selfie duet. You can post it or save it as 'private' so only you can see. The app also lets you share videos by email, text, or other social media apps, where you can better control who can see it.

TikTok introduced the Family Pairing mode in 2022, which lets parents link their account to their kid's account. It includes the ability to set daily viewing time limits, put a kid's account on Restricted Mode (see above) to limit their exposure to content that may not be appropriate, and turn off their ability to send and receive direct messages. Parents can also disable their kid's search functionality and prevent other users from seeing which videos their kid has liked. **You will need to check this often, as many kids do know how to reconnect this search function!

How do you do a duet on TikTok? TikTok has a feature that allows two users who aren't in the same place to perform a duet. One user creates and posts a video, and then a mutual follower can tap the three-dot icon at the bottom right of the video and select 'start duet now!'. The second user can then lip-sync along with the first person, swapping back and forth or in a split screen.

What are TikTok challenges? Challenges are any ideas that go viral. They can be songs, activities, or dances that start trending and then get copied by users on the platform. Sometimes they are spontaneous, but sometimes they are planned out by brands, musical artists, or influencers for marketing purposes. Most of the challenges are harmless, but some can be dangerous. Talk to your kids about which challenges are smart to accept.

Does TikTok have parental controls? TikTok offers a few ways for parents and caregivers to manage kids' accounts. You can enable time limits and the content filter on your kid's phone and protect the settings with a passcode. Or you can download TikTok, create your own account, and use the Family Pairing feature to manage your kid's TikTok settings using your phone. *If you choose the Family Pairing feature, you will need your kid's phone to sync the settings. Here's how to enable screen limits and filter content on your kid's phone:

  • Go to your kid's TikTok account within the app and tap the three dots at the right of the user profile. Then select "Digital Wellbeing" next to the icon of an umbrella. From there, select the features you want to enable:

  • Screen Time Management. This setting limits users' time in the app per day. If you're only enabling this on your kid's phone, choose a passcode to lock the setting (change this code often! Set a reminder on your phone to change it and stick to it.)

  • Restricted Mode. This blocks mature content, but even with the filter on, kids using the app on their own might come across inappropriate videos. Lock the setting with a passcode.

  • Family Pairing. On both phones tap the three dots next to the user profile. then tap Family Pairing and sync your account with your kid's via the QR code. To set up Family Pairing so you can manage the above settings, plus safety and privacy, first download TikTok onto your phone and create an account. Then, make sure you have your kid's phone and their TikTok login handy.

**Keep in mind that kids can always re-download TikTok and create a new account using a different phone number or email address, so any controls you enable aren't foolproof.

How can I monitor my kid's activity on TikTok? The app's controls seem to be geared more toward limiting kids' access to virtual gifts that can be bought with real money, instead of giving parents regular monitoring capabilities. Restricted Mode was designed to prevent kids from seeing mature content-provided they don't independently try to seek it out- and adults can sign up for an account and then link it to their kid's account via the Family Pairing mode. Kids will need to accept their parents' request to connect the accounts. If they do, parents can set up a number of limitations, such as disabling the direct message option and setting daily time limits.

What if my kid wants to get famous on TikTok? The safest way to use TikTok is with a private account, the social nature of the app and the rapid success of some of its starts. There's huge enticement to get famous, including TikTok houses where groups of young creators live, make videos, and potentially reap big-money endorsements and sponsorships. Kids familiar with these examples might be persuaded to do or share things they wouldn't normally do to get a larger audience. They may also become obsessed with likes and virtual approval, which isn't healthy for their emotional well-being. Parents can manage this by encouraging and modeling safe behavior, and putting limits on the type of information that kids share.

Should I be concerned about TikTok's security? Many people and organizations-including the U.S. government and companies like Wells Fargo-are worried that TikTok's parent company ByteDance (based in China) is using the app to spy on users in other countries. Investigations o fTikTok found that the app's privacy policy and data collection practices aren't actually any worse than other social media apps, and that concerns about spying may or may not be overblown (The U.S. Government just banned TikTok from any government-used phones and computers - so stay tuned) The company does surveil users of the app in China (!).

TikTok doesn't necessarily have a perfect record when it comes to privacy and security. For example, they only recently fixed a bug that allowed the app to access users' clipboards (where things you copy and paste are stored) every three seconds, even when they weren't using the app. They also illegally stored minors' data.

So, like with all apps and social media, monitor and set those parental controls!

Learn more about Common Sense Media and the full review here.

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