Dear Ms. Smartphone: Should my teen remove Tiktok from her phone? During the lockdown she and her best friends have been getting together and making up choreographed dances. It’s a lot of fun and I love being their audience. The app has helped us keep active and share things. Even though we like it, I am concerned by what I read. It doesn’t seem good and I don’t want her to have spyware on the phone. Should I ask my teen to take the app off her phone, or am I just having a knee-jerk reaction? Madeline, Novato
Dear Madeline: This one is above my pay-grade, as the expression goes, so I will just offer some general comments. I am reading and watching the same stories as you.
I would use this occasion as an opportunity to talk about social media with my teen. The political fray gives you a chance to remind them that social media is more complicated than the plot of ‘Games of Thrones.’ On the Internet, nothing is permanently private, and what teens post, in drips and drabs, (ie, their digital exhaust) could become a permanent record. That might not seem so important in ninth grade, but it could become a liability for employment later on. Moreover, postings can be manipulated and changed without direct permission. Kids seem to naturally understand the idea of song covers- most of the time a musical reinterpretation (the cover) is creative and good, but it could be juxtapositioned for bad.
You, or the Algorithm?
The second issue I would discuss with my teen is the “pop stardom” that might lure them to TikTok. Music, dance, and humor come naturally, and getting that 15 seconds of fame is like, well, getting into an Ivy League school, but better. When you commit to social media, you also feel obligated to package and promote yourself. But, sometimes, it’s not about us, but rather, about the the algorithm; how does it know just what to show you and when? Whatever your teens social investment in TikTok, there will be new venues to be conquered: just this week Instagram announced Reels, a brand new video feature.
As we grow more accustomed to smartphone technology and become more sophisticated with it, apps like TikTok might appear very primitive. Slapstick comedy is often an entry point during the infancy of a medium. Do readers, or their grandparents, remember vaudeville performances at movie theatres or Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” on television? One source says that TikTok is like future social media in which the least amount of effort is expended to be a content creator with a shot at viral fame or at least a few laughs.
You, or Where you Go?
So, while the content may be simple or funny, the underlying app may not be. The content is delivered within a smartphone (aka computer) that could potentially be advanced, at the data collection and surveillance level. In reading why India banned TikTok, it was ostensibly because Indian soldiers were involved in a crash with Chinese troops in the Himalayas. We civilians don’t know whether the app was tracking the soldiers’ movement through hidden code or whether this an international row motivated by political tensions, the economy, or something else.
One of the issues that goes unsaid in social media is that the content and posts of individual users is probably not that significant to providers- but information harvested from their devices could be. It’s a plus when we want to track Covid, but dangerous in other situations. A malicious app could contain code that extract the names of contacts, recent phone activities, the usage of other apps and more.
It’s hard to read the clock-face of TikTok, but it does make sense to talk though these ‘timely’ issues with your teen and listen to what she has to say. No doubt teens are one step ahead, neither turning to Microsoft or Instagram, and instead, trying out brand new platforms.