TikTok is one of the world’s most popular apps, and by the end of 2019, had attracted more than 1.5 billion users. While many adults are on TikTok, it mainly appeals to a younger audience. The app allows users to create professional-looking videos to share with others. Originally called Musical.ly, TikTok serves as a creative outlet, providing users with easy-to-use editing tools, including the option to add hit music soundtracks. Due to its popularity with younger audiences, TikTok safety is a concern shared by many users.
While TikTok is safe for the most part, as with any popular app, there are still some concerns. In particular, parents of younger teens will want to keep a close eye on their child’s activity on the app, in terms of the content being viewed and uploaded, and who has access. What’s more, TikTok’s popularity has drawn the attention of scammers looking to use the app’s widespread reach to defraud users.
In this guide, we explain more about what TikTok is and the safety concerns involved in its use. In addition, we offer practical tips to help users stay safe while enjoying the app.
What Is TikTok?
The TikTok app enables users to create and share short videos up to 15 seconds long. Multiple videos can be combined into a story up to 60 seconds long. The current iteration of the app was originally Musical.ly, which was purchased by ByteDance in 2017 and absorbed into the company’s Chinese TikTok app. By that point, users had already extended TikTok’s usage from music video creation to other areas such as comedy, performance art, and education.
One of the main draws of TikTok is the ease with which users can create professional-looking videos. It comes with a set of intuitive editing tools, interactive filters, and the option to add soundtracks to videos.
Another of TikTik’s attractions is the short length of videos. With attention spans waning, a 15-second upper limit seems to be ideal, enabling the consumption of lots of content in a short space of time. This is likely one of the reasons TikTok is so popular with younger users, with 60 percent of its user base aged between 16-24.
Is TikTok Safe?
TikTok is safe for the most part, as long as it’s used correctly. However, like with other social media apps, users are interacting with the outside world, so there are inherent privacy and security concerns. Here are some of the main things to be aware of:
- Inappropriate content: While TikTok has rules about the type of content that may be posted, with so many users, it is extremely difficult to police. This means that there’s potential for minors to be exposed to inappropriate content. There have even been reports that ISIS has used TikTok to spread propaganda and recruit followers, including showing videos including corpses and armed fighters.
- Privacy concerns: If an account is set to public, this means that anyone using TikTok can view an uploaded video. Users (especially younger ones) can make poor decisions when it comes to posting content online. As with any social media site, there’s the chance that users will publish content that they later regret, for example, because it reveals personal information or could damage their reputation.
- Inappropriate communication: TikTok facilitates interaction between users through likes, shares, comments, and direct messages. Depending on your account settings, you never know what comments and messages you might receive. As with any social media app, this type of open forum opens the door to bullying, harassment, and inappropriate relationships.
- Scams: Once the popularity of TikTok exploded, so did reports of scams surfacing on the network. We’ll discuss these in the next section, but the main ones to be aware of are dating site scams, fake profiles, and the sale of likes and follows.
Is TikTok Private?
We’ll discuss app privacy settings in-depth a bit later, but these mainly allow you to tailor how much information is public versus kept private. There is still the question of what TikTok does with all of the information users input into the app.
Recent reports allege that TikTok is under investigation as a national security threat. It came under increased scrutiny in 2019 when TikTok showed very little content covering the Hong Kong protests. This brought about speculation that Chinese-based TikTok was actively censoring Hong Kong-related content and that it may be working on behalf of the Chinese government.
TikTok maintains that all of its US user data is stored in the US, but there is concern that it still may be tied to Chinese laws that require it to hand over data to the Chinese government if requested. These concerns are serious enough that US army personnel are banned from using TikTok and a senate bill has been introduced to prohibit the use of the app on any US government-issued device.
In response, TikTok is taking steps to reassure users, including stopping China-based moderators reviewing overseas content, and hiring ex-ADP security chief Roland Cloutier as the app’s head of security.
It’s also worth mentioning here that TikTok has been accused of jeopardising user privacy in the past. In December 2019, it settled a lawsuit that alleged TikTok (while it was still called Musical.ly) had failed to protect the privacy of minors. The suit alleged that the account setup process required users under the age of 13 to enter personally identifying information, such as their name, email address, phone number, and a photo. This information was made public on the platform. TikTok was also accused of collecting location data of minors and other users in 2015 and 2016.
Any platform with the popularity of TikTok is going to be viewed as an opportunity for scammers. Here are some of the scams circulating on TikTok:
- Adult dating sites: Scammers are using TikTok in a fairly elaborate scam to get users to sign up to adult dating sites. Scammers will steal videos from other social media sites and use them to lure TikTok users over to Snapchat. Once there, they’re shown sexually explicit photos or videos to get users to click through to adult dating sites. Many adult dating sites pay on a cost per click or install basis, so the scammers are paid when users click the link or subscribe to the site.
- Fake accounts: As with any social media platform, TikTok attracts its fair share of fake accounts. For example, users might pose as popular TikTok “celebrities” in order to gain likes and follows. Once they’ve popularized their account, they’ll switch it to their real identity. Others might set up a fake account for the sole purpose of damaging the reputation of an individual or business.
- Selling likes and followers: Some TikTok accounts have been found to be selling likes and followers, not only for TikTok, but also for other social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube. Paying for likes and follows is just a bad idea. For one, it violates the terms of service for these platforms. In addition, there’s no guarantee that the payee will deliver on their promise, or that if they do, the likes and follows won’t disappear after a day or two.
Tips for Improving TikTok Safety and Privacy
Thankfully, there are ways to ensure that you and your children can use TikTok with peace of mind, including monitoring usage and taking advantage of some of the app’s built-in settings. Here are our top tips for using TikTok safely.
- Abide by the age guidelines
- Educate children about online privacy and scams
- Adjust privacy settings
- Use digital wellbeing features
- Report inappropriate content
- Delete content that poses a risk
- Delete unused accounts
Let’s look at these in more detail:
1. Abide By the Age Restrictions
TikTok is intended for use only by persons aged 13 and over. Some TikTok reviews refer to a section of the app that is intended for under-13s, but this appears to have been scrapped, likely due to the lawsuit discussed earlier. TikTok now states multiple times in its term of service that the app is only to be utilized by users aged 13 years or above.
That being said, it’s very easy to simply enter a false date of birth and for someone underage to set up a TikTok account. For parents, it’s recommended that you monitor your child’s use of apps and don’t let a child under 13 set up or use a TikTok account. Some devices enable you to implement controls to block the installation of apps of a certain rating (TikTok is rated 12+).
2. Educate Children About Online Privacy and Scams
We’ll delve into parental restrictions below, but one of the ways to keep your child safe on any social media app is to have an open dialogue about the risks involved. While fear mongering may not be the best course of action, educating them about the safety concerns noted above is important.
You know your child best and the optimal way to approach this topic with them will vary, but discussing the consequences of various actions, such as posting inappropriate content or engaging in conversation with strangers, is a good place to start. Kids should also learn about the various scams that are circulating so they know what to look out for.
If possible, you should use TikTok alongside your child, at least when they first start using it. This way, you can both become familiar with what the app offers and navigate any territory that makes you or your child feel uncomfortable or puts them at risk. The bonus of using the app together: you’ll have lots of fun!
3. Adjust Privacy and Security Settings
TikTok does come with a number of privacy and security settings, but it’s worth noting that these are set to the least private settings by default. As such, the first thing you should do when you set up an account, before uploading any videos, is to adjust your settings. Note that you can’t adjust settings within a web browser and must use the app to make these changes.
Here are the main ones you might want to start with:
- Make your account private: Accounts are set to “Public” by default, meaning anyone on TikTok can view your uploaded content. Set your account to “Private” by clicking the settings menu (three-dot icon), selecting Privacy and safety, and moving the Private account toggle to the on (green) position. This way, your existing followers can see your videos and likes, but any new followers will need to be approved by you.
- Limit comments: Still in the Privacy and safety screen, click Who can comment on your videos. You can choose Everyone, Friends, or No one.
- Filter comments: If you want to allow commenting on your uploads, but have no time for offensive remarks, you can add default or custom filters. Under Privacy and safety, click Comment filters. The first option is Filter spam and offensive comments. Toggling this to the on (green) position will filter out comments that TikTok’s built-in filters deem to be offensive in nature or spam. There is also the option to add your own keyword filters. Toggle Filter keywords to the on position, click Add keywords, and enter keywords you wish to filter. Any comment on your videos containing one of those keywords will be automatically hidden. Note that offensive comments on other videos will still be visible.
- Block accounts: If at any time you want to cease interaction by another user with your account, you can block them. To do this, go to their profile, click the settings menu icon, and hit Block. You can review which accounts you have blocked by going to the Privacy and safety page and selecting Blocked accounts.
Other privacy and safety options include allowing your account to be suggested to others and giving permission for your videos to be downloaded. You can also choose who can send you direct messages, duet with your videos, and react to your videos.
4. Use the Digital Wellbeing Features
As well as privacy and security settings, TikTok provides a couple of options that fall under what it calls “Digital Wellbeing.”
- Screen Time Management: This enables you to set a time limit (40, 60, 90, or 120 minutes) for how long you or your child can use the app before it switches off. To continue using the app after the time is up, you need to enter a passcode.
- Restricted Mode: This prevents what the app registers as inappropriate content from being shown to you or your child. Within this setting, TikTok does note that this feature isn’t foolproof and the company is continuously trying to improve it. To help, you can report any inappropriate content you see while in Restricted Mode.
You can access Digital Wellbeing options by going to your profile, clicking the settings menu icon, and selecting Digital Wellbeing. Note that these features are protected separately by passcodes.
5. Report Inappropriate Content
Even if you have your settings adjusted to block inappropriate content, you may see it anyway. This is because TikTok largely relies on its users to report content that violates its Community Guidelines. The best way to ensure there’s no inappropriate content on TikTok is to report it when you see it.
- Video: To report a video, tap the share icon and click Report.
- Message: If you receive an inappropriate message, click the share icon and hit Report.
- Comment: You can report a comment by clicking on the comment and selecting Report.
- Account: To report an account, click the profile, select the settings menu icon, and hit Report.
6. Delete Content That Poses a Risk
Whether it’s your own account or your child’s, it’s a good idea to regularly review content you’ve uploaded and remove anything you’re uncomfortable with. For example, a teen could post a seemingly innocent video that reveals personal information such as what school they attend or clubs they belong to.
Deleting content is simple. Go to the video and select the settings icon, then hit Delete.
7. Delete Unused Accounts
Have you or your child decided to move on to another platform? Or perhaps you want to start fresh with a new account and abandon your existing one. As with any online service, you should avoid having unused accounts just sitting there. If a hacker gains access to an idle account, they could steal any leftover personal information or use the account (with your identity) for nefarious purposes.
To delete a TikTok account, go to the settings menu, select Manage my account, then click Delete account at the bottom of the screen.