Do TikTok and Teens Mix Well?

a graphic of eyeballs on a black background. Meant to look sinister.
Do TikTok and Teens Mix Well? Photo Credit:

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am sort of curious when it comes to TikTok. I have three children. The  oldest one, age 18, is using TikTok the most but also showing the younger girls, ages 14 and 11, how to make cute videos. I am a responsible parent! Should I tell the three of them that there is a security risk if they continue to use TikTok, and what exactly is the risk? Joni

Dear Joni: When it comes to digital civics we should all be asking whether teens and TikTok mix well.  While our countries are not engaged in outright combat our government has made a point of saying that the TikTok app is closely allied with the Chinese Communist Party. But it is not a new discussion. Both the United States government, and now the European Union, require that staff delete the app from their devices.

In a post nearly three years back, a Mom posed the same question to this column. The issue was spotlighted when the government of India decided to ban the use of TikTok. It was thought that soldiers using the app had revealed the coordinates for a platoon’s location and movement. In 2020 Wired magazine published an expose on the app’s security breaches and they continue to provide regular updates on the complicated political, security, and economic outcomes. They have less to say on whether TicToc and Teens mix well. That’s left up to parents.

A more recent indictment of TikTok has came from journalists at Forbes magazine. They claimed that the TikTok app recorded the IP address from their phone or computer and then surveiled their movements. The Chinese accused the journalists of getting backdoor information about the app and led the parent company, ByteDance, to deny that the Communist Party has a voting share.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has gone even further and reports that the TikTok browser can track keystrokes on your computer or phone and gain access to all the online sites your visit. The breach comes from using the browser that TikTok opens within their app, not the main ones like Safari or Firefox. For more detail about the browsers, read here.

It’s difficult for your teens, far removed from this intrigue and espionage, to see these threats. Teens use the TikTok app to find their friends, sing, dance, and perhaps seek stardom as an influencer. That said, I do have reservations about teens and tweens using the TikTok app, particularly since they are not of legal age (18) to have their own accounts. And, as civilian personnel, you and I don’t know if other social media apps like Facebook, and Twitter are tracking in similar ways.

Digital Literacy, Please:

Digital literacy is my first concern: kids are ‘fast’ when they set up new accounts, not slow and deliberate. Many of them will overlook a vital step. It’s important with any social media account, particularlyTikTok, to take time to read the fine print and in this case, opt out so they do no not show posts publicly. In the heat of setting up a new account this is easily overlooked.  It’s never a good idea, on any platform, for teens to post so publicly. They also need to informed about the risks  of using the in-app browser functions within TikTok and on other social media apps.

A related concern, also a security risk, has to do with the video content that TikTok (and other social media platforms) collect. It seems like practically every post they make will have a candid face-shot and these images can be harvested for biometric data. If your teen travels to China or one of its ally countries, they might have collected a full dossier before she ever passes through passport control. 

Ticked Off:

But back to your question, ideally the librarians and digital educators in your teens’ schools should be having a dialogue on TikTok. Tweens are at a prime age to learn about digital civics and master the fine print on apps for their own safety online.  In that sense, TikTok and teens should mix! If their schools do not offer this, then you might organize with other parents or go to the school board. Digital literacy needs to be part of a modern curriculum. 

As I was researching your question about TikTok I came across a statistic that makes me, as a parent, shudder. According to Pew Research, a quarter of adults ages under age 30 regularly get news on TikTok. That’s a big filter bubble and a disturbing trend. It means that there is a more pressing need for lessons in digital civics out there. We must become better educated on how to spot misinformation and seek out reputable sources.

I close with a pithy example from my own mailbox.  This past week I ordered a braided dog collar for my pet and the Chinese company that sold the item unexpectedly threw a metal name tag into the package. I began to wonder, for no legitimate reason at all, whether it was a gift from an appreciative retailer or an in-house tracker. Meanwhile, I accidently put my sweater on inside-out when went to walk the dog. The label on the sweater said it was made by “Truth Republic” in China. Almost a TikTok worthy moment there….