TikTok Is a Minefield! Here’s How to Make It Safer for Your Kids.

Stopping your kids from using their favorite app? Tough luck. Making it safer? We’ve got some tips for you.

Aliza Vigderman, Senior Editor, Industry Analyst

TikTok tablet

You’ve probably heard the saying that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame in a lifetime. Well, with TikTok you can be famous for 15 seconds — the average length of a TikTok video. Fast, bonkers, and almost impossible to put down, TikTok is YouTube on rocket fuel.

That makes it a perfect fit for kids and teens, whether they’re wannabe influencers or just there to watch. About two-thirds of TikTok’s billion-plus users are now ages 12 to 17, according to new data from Forrester, a leading media researcher and advisory firm1. TikTok’s secret algorithm — its Big Mac special sauce, as it were — is so effective that it keeps kids hooked 91 minutes per day on average2.

So what’s the problem with a little crazy, turbo-charged fun for the little ones? 

Plenty, it turns out. Along with our tips for navigating this minefield, here’s a quick rundown of what’s in store for you once your children start scrolling through TikTok’s endless library of 15-second video clips.

Did You Know: Since 2021, kids have spent more than 62 percent more time on TikTok than on YouTube, its closest competitor3.

The Problems With TikTok (and Some Easy Fixes)

What’s the big deal, you ask, if your 6-year-old veges out on the couch for a few minutes with their TikTok feed? Other than the documented fact that too much mindless screen time can make kids poorer communicators and thinkers4, this.

1. You don’t have to log in to TikTok to view TikTok content.

Parents without TikTok accounts can try this experiment at home. Type tiktok.com into your browser. You should see a video feed. You’re now officially using TikTok. If you can get on TikTok without an account, your app-savvy kids can too.
On the bright side, kids can only search by content creator — not with search words — without logging in, so searches for explicit material won’t necessarily turn up anything inappropriate. Anything could creep into your kids’ feeds, however, if TikTok doesn’t know who they are.

How to fix it: You know what Yosemite Sam always says: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” If your child won’t budge from TikTok, create an account for them. For parents with children 13 and under, TikTok now offers Family Pairing. Like Google Family Link, TikTok’s parental controls let parents filter explicit content and set screen time limits.

TikTok Safety Tip: Your child may fight you on the monitoring front. We’ve been down that road. Here are five reasons you never want to back down on parental controls when your children are online.

2. Sexual predators hang out on TikTok.

“TikTok is just videos. How can an online stalker target my child there?” Good question. Unfortunately TikTok isn’t just videos. It’s a social media platform, so commenting and direct messaging — two easy holes for sickos to crawl through — are built in.
The sad truth is, cyber predators are out there — hundreds of thousands of them. TikTok is one of their preferred stalking grounds. They’ll use anything at their disposal — flattery, lies, bullying — to get want they want, usually a sex pic or video. But don’t worry: We have a fix for that too.

How to fix it: When you set up an account for your child (13 and under), commenting and direct messaging are automatically disabled. That means no sleazeball users will be able to comment on your kiddos’ content or reach out to them via DM. That will make it almost impossible for creeps lurking in the shadows to stake out your children on TikTok.

FYI: You don’t have to be a child to disable DMs on TikTok. Adults and teens 13 and up can deactivate direct messaging too.

3. TikTok is scam central.

The nastiest scams circulating on TikTok work on kids too. It may be an invitation to download a malware-infested app. It may be a romance scammer sending a flirty DM to your teen. If your child is out to rack up followers, there are abusers on TikTok who will take advantage of that. With a 1-billion-strong user base, the bad apples are bound to be legion.

Don’t despair. If your kids use smartphones, you’ve probably already taken some steps toward securing their devices. (Let’s just hope you didn’t make any of the costly mistakes I made when I gave my kids their first smartphones!) If you want to be extra safe, we also have one more recommendation.

How to fix it: TikTok’s parental controls are a step in the right direction. The problem is, how many other apps do your children use every day? Some with parental controls of their own? Juggling all those controls can be a hassle and time drain, which may make you more likely to turn a blind eye. Our solution? Check out the parental-control options built into ID protection services such as Norton LifeLock. That way you’ll protect your kids against identity theft, cyber predators, and hackers all in one.

TikTok Safety Tip: Actual TikTok users will never reach out to you via email, a common TikTok scam. That’s because there’s no way for them to get your email unless they stole it. Make sure your kids know that from day one.

4. TikTok can make your kids unhappy and confused.

There’s a ton — let’s say tons and tons and tons — of TikTok videos that hypersexualize young girls and just as many “my daily diet” videos. How many superfit, photogenic teens in spandex do our kids need to see before they start feeling like they’re just not as good looking or likable?

You may remember the rash of TikTok #deviouslicks challenges making the rounds last year, daring kids to vandalize school property and, in extreme cases, attack their teachers6.

The pandemic has left a lot of kids feeling alienated. To a degree, TikTok has helped them cope with an endless diversion from reality. Parents, however, don’t know what the long-term effects will be. Remember that TikTok comes with social media’s normal negative baggage — peer pressure, fear of missing out (and measuring up), addictiveness, and bullying — and it’s also a significantly more potent cocktail.

How to fix it: There’s no magic fix. Limiting screen time and restricting content (for younger kids), can help children find a balance. But carving out some offline time with your kids every day may be just what the doctor ordered. Real face time is one less chunk of screen time to worry about. It’s also a chance to talk to your kids about all that wacky, disorienting content they’ve been consuming on TikTok!

FYI: In 2020 and 2021, otherwise healthy teens around the world started visiting doctors, displaying symptoms of Tourette syndrome. The root of their illness? Apparently it was watching too many videos posted by 22-year-old German YouTube influencer and Tourette sufferer Jan Zimmerman. With Zimmerman, psychiatrists had discovered a brand-new disease: mass social-media-induced illness or MSMI7.

7. TikTok collects oodles of data.

Our data is a hot commodity for companies all over the web, but some companies go to extreme lengths to collect obscene amounts of it. TikTok and YouTube are the kings of the hill, a new study by URL Genius has found, farming more of our data than any other social media app8.

TikTok’s particular specialty is opening its platform to third-party trackers. These creepy-crawly bits of code follow us not just on TikTok, but off, building massive — and massively valuable — profiles on us as we hop from one website to another, even, it seems, when we explicitly tell TikTok we don’t want to be tracked.

What does that mean for kids? On the surface, nothing. Ensuring they’re using TikTok safely is still our No. 1 priority as digitally aware parents. Just be warned: TikTok isn’t free. Unless you take precautions, the social media behemoth will mine every minute of your kids’ screen time for data worth a lot more than its weight in #kidsdietchallenges.

How to fix it: Unfortunately there isn’t a total fix. Not until the laws on data privacy and collection change. But you can make it harder for TikTok to vacuum up your child’s data. If you subscribe to a VPN service that covers Android devices, you can at least mask your IP address and location. (iPhone users don’t fret; here are the best VPNs for iPhones.)

You can also sign up your child for TikTok with an email alias (more on this below), so they can sign up with their Gmail address. TikTok can’t see it, so the company can’t share it with a third party or attach it to a profile.

Did You Know: Firefox Relay is the easiest, cheapest way to get started with email aliases. If you’re on an iPhone or iPad, Hide My Email is a new paid feature with iCloud+ that accomplishes the same thing. Apple also has a free Hide My Email option when you use your Apple account to sign in to third-party apps like TikTok.

Final Thoughts

Who would have thought something so goofy could be so dangerous?

In fairness to TikTok, part of the problem isn’t TikTok’s fault. The web is oozing with grifters, scammers, and predators. Big tech has been stealing our data for years. And TikTok isn’t the only social media app that’s made us miserable. (Here’s looking at you, Facebook and Twitter.)

There’s one key difference, however. TikTok is mostly kids. Kids don’t have thick skin, and they have limited perspective and defenses. In that sense, in letting our children run loose there is a huge gamble many parents aren’t prepared to take.
You’re probably not going to be able to keep your kids off TikTok forever. When they get curious, open a kid’s account, set up parental controls, and take some time, if you can, for some IRL goofiness.
After all, TikTok is way over the top. These pretty simple steps are the best you can do to bring your kids back down to earth.

Citations

  1. Forrester. (2021, Nov). Weekly Usage Of TikTok Surpasses Instagram Among US Gen Z Youth.
    https://www.forrester.com/blogs/weekly-usage-of-tiktok-surpasses-instagram-among-us-gen-z-youth/
  2. Qustodio. (2022). Social media.
    https://www.qustodio.com/en/social-media-qustodio-annual-data-report-2021/
  3. Qustodio. (2022). Living and learning in a digital world.
    https://www.qustodio.com/en/living-and-learning-in-a-digital-world/
  4. New York Presbyterian. (2022). What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Children’s Brains?
    https://healthmatters.nyp.org/what-does-too-much-screen-time-do-to-childrens-brains/
  5. TikTok. (2022). Guardian’s Guide.
    https://www.tiktok.com/safety/en/guardians-guide/
  6. /reply-all/. (2021, Oct). #181 Absolutely Devious Lick.
    https://gimletmedia.com/shows/reply-all/6nh68xd
  7. Psychiatric Times. (2021, Sep). Tourette’s or Mass Sociogenic Illness? You Decide.
    https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/tourettes-or-mass-sociogenic-illness-you-decide
  8. Psychiatric Times. (2022, Jan). New Research Across 200 iOS Apps Hints that Surveillance Marketing is Still Going Strong.
    https://app.urlgeni.us/blog/new-research-across-200-ios-apps-hints-surveillance-marketing-may-still-be-going-strong