Video app TikTok is quickly rising in popularity, especially among teenagers, but with safety, privacy, and national security concerns, do the benefits outweigh the risks?
TikTok claims that American user data is stored in the US; however, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing. By Chinese law any company operating in China will by default have to hand its data over to the Communist government.
“Whenever there’s a large number of people using a social app, there’s a level of risk. It’s all about managing those risks and making it as safe as possible for your child”
To learn more about the risks versus rewards of using TikTok, especially among teens, The Sociable asked Brandwidth Social Media Strategist Colin Peter O’Riordan, whose innovation agency has offices in New York and London.
For those who don’t know what TikTok is, O’Riordan explains, “TikTok is a social video-sharing app that allows users to create 15-second videos, usually of them lip-synching or dancing to a popular song,” adding, “Creators can then share their video with their friends or with other TikTok users, who can like and comment on the posts.”
When asked why TikTok has become so popular, the social media strategist believes “that the app makes it super easy for users to create something.”
“With the various filters, speed options and audio choices, you can create a pretty cool video, even if you’re not good at lip-synching! The attention span of many social users is also short and TikTok still manages to entertain as it focuses on short form video.
“Parents should be aware that when you open a TikTok account, it is automatically set to ‘public,'”
“Another reason is that younger social users like to have an app that they feel is theirs. Once upon a time that was Snapchat, but as the app started to skew to an older demographic, teens rushed to TikTok. The reality is that teenage users prefer to be active on an app that their parents don’t use. Right now, that means TikTok.”
But aren’t there concerns that young people are spending too much time in front of screens anyway? Should teenagers really be using TikTok?
“Whenever there’s a large number of people using a social app, there’s a level of risk. It’s all about managing those risks and making it as safe as possible for your child,” says O’Riordan.
“As with any social media platform, I think it should be used in moderation and in the case with teenagers, there should be some level of parent supervision or monitoring. TikTok can be a lot of fun for teenagers and provides them with an opportunity to get creative.
“The app also has editing features that encourage the user to make their videos look more professional, so overall, I do think the app is OK for teenagers.”
Alright, so you believe it’s OK for teenagers to use TikTok, but it is still a video sharing platform. What risks are there of exposing adolescents to content that their age group shouldn’t be seeing? What safeguards are in place?
“The main concern is teenagers being exposed to inappropriate content.
“There have been reports of things like nudity and swearing on the platform; however, if a TikTok user sees inappropriate content, they can report it within the app.
“I believe if you enjoy using TikTok, then you should continue to do so”
“The app also has resources such as safety videos, a parental guide and parental controls. TikTok’s terms of service actually says that the app can only be used by children under 18 with parent’s consent.
“A version of TikTok for kids under 13 years of age also exists. That version doesn’t allow the user to post videos or see comments. Instead, they receive a curated selection of videos that are appropriate for their age.”
What can a parent do to assure that their children are safe, secure, and protected on TikTok?
“Parents should be aware that when you open a TikTok account, it is automatically set to ‘public,'” says O’Riordan
“Obviously this is a concern and parents should double check that their child’s account is on ‘private’ mode. This will ensure that only approved users can follow or comment on your child’s videos.
“There’s also a default setting that lets anyone download videos posted on public profiles. I recommend disabling this option within the privacy and safety section too.
“Lastly, If you are concerned that your kid is using the app too much, you can use the screen time management feature. This requires the user to enter a password after two hours or usage per day,” he concludes.
“TikTok has emphasized numerous times that it is independent from China”
While steps to encourage parental involvement while safeguarding minors may put many worries to rest, there is still the broader issue of national security — something that is probably last on the minds of parents and teens.
Nonetheless, there have been major concerns on the side of the US government regarding TikTok’s China-based parent company.
Should TikTok users be concerned that their data could potentially flow directly to the Communist government via ByteDance?
“The US government is investigating the Chinese parent company of TikTok, due to censorship and national security concerns.
“The main concern is that TikTok could be used as a tool by the Chinese Communist Party to censor information and gather data on millions of users.
“TikTok has emphasized numerous times that it is independent from China; however, and says that it has never removed a video at the request of the Chinese government.”
In that case, do the benefits outweigh the perceived national security threat?
“I believe if you enjoy using TikTok, then you should continue to do so. TikTok does not operate in China and it has said that data from US users is stored in the United States and that it is not subject to Beijing surveillance laws.
“From what I can see, this fear is stemming from the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese-based conglomerate called ByteDance.”
What then, does this issue tell us about privacy policies of social media platforms?
“It definitely shows the increasing concern about how companies approach privacy. Obviously the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a major moment as it opened everyone’s eyes to the understanding of personal data and the need for additional privacy laws.
“In response to the scandal, Facebook said that it was centralizing its privacy settings to make it easier for users to change how much information they shared.
“But the big question that arose was whether or not users should rely on these platforms to self-regulate when it comes to privacy. Most believe that regulation at federal and state levels for online privacy is now necessary.”
Prior to joining Brandwidth, O’Riordan worked with its sister agency Text100 in NYC. Colin is originally from Killarney, a town on the west coast of Ireland. He has expertise in Social Media, Content Creation, Technology and Brand Development.
Disclosure: This article includes a client of an Espacio portfolio company.