What is TikTok? And is it safe? A guide for clueless parents

This hot social media app can foster creativity and socialization, but parents — and kids — need to know the risks.
Image: Tiktok: A guide for clueless parents.
People can become virally famous on TikTok — many minor TikTok celebrities have 100,000-plus followers, and the biggest stars break 10 million and more.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; AP
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By Stephanie Thurrott

If you’re a parent of a tween, TikTok is likely part of your family’s life, whether your child is spending hours on the app, or spending hours begging you for permission to download it.

For the uninitiated, TikTok is a social media app you can use to create videos, usually by lip-synching or dancing along with top songs. You can share the videos you create with friends, or with a wider circle of TikTok users.

You can also follow other creators on the app without posting your own content. People can become virally famous on TikTok — many minor TikTok celebrities have 100,000-plus followers, and the biggest stars break 10 million and more.

TikTok can be a creative, social outlet

Kids like to get together with friends to make TikTok videos. “TikTok can be really fun. Some videos are lighthearted and cute, and can be a source of creativity for kids,” says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of parent education at Common Sense Media.

Vivian Manning-Schaffel of New York City has a 12-year-old daughter she says is “obsessed” with TikTok. “She loves to edit videos and lip sync, and this app allows her to do what she enjoys. She can create funny, humorous scenarios and express herself with song,” she says.

And TikTok’s editing features make it easy for kids to create professional-looking videos. Sareh Baca of Atlanta says TikTok has become a big part of her 11-year-old daughter’s life. “She’s super creative. Her favorite thing to do is create videos with her American Girl dolls. Some of the stuff she’s produced is pretty impressive — it’s a real creative outlet for her.”

As with any app, though, it’s important for parents to monitor what their children can do and share with others. “Whenever there are a huge number of people using a social app, there’s a dark side,” Elgersma says. Here are some of the ways you can help keep your kids safe on TikTok.

Watch out for inappropriate content

People of all ages use TikTok, and a lot of the videos involve lip-synching or dancing to pop hits. So, your child could come across swearing, scantily clad adults, and suggestive dancing. Elgersma says she’s heard reports of nudity but hasn’t come across any herself. “But I have seen things I would not want my 9-year-old daughter to see,” she says. She has also seen hashtags linked to dangerous behaviors like self-harm and cutting.

TikTok's Digital Wellbeing feature gives parents the option to put limits on screentime and filter out inappropriate content.

You can filter out spam, offensive comments, and specific keywords, and block accounts, but Elgersma doesn’t think the filters catch everything. She points out that hashtags change frequently, and creative spelling can help people bypass filters.

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For kids under age 13, there’s a version of TikTok where they can create videos but not post them, and they can view only videos deemed appropriate for children.

Limit the people who can access your child’s videos

By default, when you open a TikTok account it’s set to “public.” Tricia Cuthbertson of Jersey City, NJ saw firsthand how dangerous that can be. Her 8-year-old daughter was playing with an 11-year-old friend and asked if she could borrow Cuthbertson’s phone. The two girls downloaded TikTok and posted three videos of themselves. “In the matter of an hour, she has 20 followers, all men, and they were starting to make comments,” Cuthbertson says. “I take responsibility, but it takes that little amount of time for things to get out of control.”

Setting your child’s account to “private” can help protect them. With a private account, only people you approve can follow, comment on, and like your videos. And if you do choose to have a public account, you can turn off “Allow others to find me,” and control who can comment, react to your videos, duet with you, send you messages, and view videos you liked.

Teach your child how to stay safe online

Most of the settings on TikTok are toggles or quick clicks, so it’s easy for your child to change them, or to switch an account from private to public.

“There’s always a way to get around these things. None of the passcodes or parental controls are 100 percent foolproof. Kids are designed to try to get around them. That’s what they do developmentally —they test limits,” Elgersma says.

Manning-Schaffel feels confident that her daughter understands how to use TikTok safely. “She really does understand the ramifications. I think kids that age develop a level of social-media savvy. They understand the capabilities and the dangers, and they realize that whatever they put out there is there forever,” she says.

Baca hopes that by teaching her daughter how to navigate TikTok, she’ll be better equipped to manage social media and the broader Internet as she gets older. “We have lots of conversations about accepting friend requests or friending people you don’t know. I go through her friend list, and right now her online social circle is super small,” Baca says. “By the time she’s in middle school and high school she’ll have gone through these low-risk situations, and they can help her navigate these things a little bit better.”

Even if you don’t allow your child to have social media accounts, it’s important to have conversations about online safety, since your child will have access to friends’ phones and computers. Baca says she knows that some of her daughter’s friends aren’t being monitored very closely. “Sometimes that worries me,” she says.

Beware of bullying

From within the TikTok app, you can control how your child interacts with others.

Bullying on TikTok can take two forms. When someone duets with or reacts to another person’s video, the videos appear side by side. “What some people do is, they take a video they deem ‘cringeworthy’ and they make fun of it in a duet or reaction,” Elgersma says. People can also create a compilation of cringeworthy TikTok videos and post them on YouTube.

People can post cruel statements in the comments as well, though Elgersma says she doesn’t see much of that. “The comments I see are mostly positive — there are a lot of supportive comments,” she says. And when creepy or mean comments do appear, she says she often sees upstanders calling out those commenters.

Keep a close eye on kids who want to be famous

Some children aren’t just interested in making videos with their friends on TikTok — they want to get a lot of likes and followers. And that can lead to bad decisions. “It depends a lot on the kid and why they’re using TikTok. If they are trying to be famous, there’s more motivation to do riskier or suggestive things,” Elgersma says.

Monitor screen time

Manning-Schaffel’s main concern with the app is how, as with so many apps, it can turn into a time suck. “It’s easy to spend time scrolling through so much content. You have to police it like you would police anything else,” she says.

Baca agrees, and via iPhone limits her daughter’s screen time to 30 minutes a day on school days and an hour a day on weekends. From within the TikTok app, you can limit the screen time from 40 minutes to two hours.

Check it out yourself

TikTok is easy to understand once you get your hands on it. “I always encourage parents to check out the app themselves. That’s often a step we adults overlook. Get in there yourself, poke around, and test it,” Elgersma says.

After just 15 or 20 minutes scrolling through videos and learning the settings, you should have a good idea of whether it’s an app you’d feel comfortable letting your child use. It could even become something you do together.

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