TikTok App: Safety Guide For Parents and Educators

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TikTok App: Safety Guide For Parents and Educators

September 21, 2020
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Table of Contents

TikTok App: Safety Guide for Parents & Educators

TikTok is a make-your-own music video app that is now the top most downloaded app in the world. It’s wildly popular among US teens and young adults who enjoy watching and creating short online videos.

Watch our app guide to learn how TikTok works and how to protect your kids while they use it

TikTok released new parental controls in April 2020 that all parents should be aware of. Online predators can watch students sing and dance on the app, if parents don’t take some proactive steps to keep their kids safe.

This SmartSocial.com safety guide will help parents decide if their kids should use TikTok. Parents and educators will also learn how to make the app safer for students who are already on it.

What is the TikTok app?

TikTok screen shot
  • TikTok is a social media app that allows users to watch and create videos that are 15 to 60 seconds
  • The app was formerly known as Musical.ly
  • Lip-syncing, dancing, and acting out comedy sketches are some of the most popular types of videos on TikTok
  • Built-in editing tools make it easy for users to add filters, songs, effects, and sound bites to their videos without any additional apps
  • The app boasts an “endless stream” of content for users to watch, which can promote addictive behavior in students

How students interact on TikTok

  • Like many social media platforms, TikTok users earn likes and comments on their posts
  • TikTok incentivizes collaboration by allowing users to “duet” with each other, which encourages audience reactions
  • Users can follow others on the app without posting their own content, but there is no way to browse content on the app without setting up an account
  • The app offers Direct Messages. The app automatically disables this feature for younger users (effective April 30, 2020)

Where is the TikTok app available?

TikTok app in the news

Unfortunately, there are many reports showcasing the negative impact of TikTok on teens – from predator concerns to collecting data on minors without parental consent. There are also safety and privacy concerns with the app that parents should know about.

TikTok faced a lot of uncertainty in 2020, but is here to stay in the USA

"TikTok Deal Trips Over U.S.-China Power Struggle" headline from The New York Times
Under the terms of the proposed deal, ByteDance’s stake in the newly created TikTok Global would be handed out to the company’s current backers — which includes prominent American investors. As a result, the transaction would eventually lead to the app becoming majority-owned by American investors, according to a person with knowledge of the talks. - New York Times

Politicians consider banning TikTok in the US

"Trump eyes a TikTok ban everything you need to know" headline from CNet
“Citing national security concerns, India banned TikTok [in the summer of 2020]. The US and Australia are also considering blocking the app… Politicians are worried the Chinese government could use the video app to spy on US citizens.” - c|net

TikTok was secretly accessing the clipboard on users’ devices, according to Forbes

"Warning-Apple Suddenly Catches TikTok Secretly Spying on Millions of iPhone Users" headline from Forbes
The most acute issue with this vulnerability is Apple’s universal clipboard functionality, which means that anything I copy on my Mac or iPad can be read by my iPhone, and vice versa. So, if TikTok is active on your phone while you work, the app can basically read anything and everything you copy on another device: Passwords, work documents, sensitive emails, financial information. Anything. - Forbes

Child predators use the app, according to investigators

"Video App TikTok fails to remove online predators" headline from BBC Trending
Video-sharing app TikTok is failing to suspend the accounts of people sending sexual messages to teenagers and children, a BBC investigation has found. Hundreds of sexually explicit comments have been found on videos posted by children as young as nine. - BBC News
"Report: Online predators use teen app TikTok to solicit children" headline from WDBJ 7.com

The app is innocent enough, but there are reportedly online predators who use these apps to lure children. [Investigations into the app] found a large community of adult users on TikTok soliciting nude photos from kids. Some of those users even sent explicit videos to children. - WDBJ 7 News

TikTok paid a hefty fine for collecting data on kids without parental consent

"Senators say TikTok should be investigated by US intelligence for potential "national security risks" headline from CBS News
TikTok settled a case with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for $5.7 billion for collecting data on child users without parental consent, back when the app was called Musical.ly. It was the largest civil penalty the agency ever collected for a children’s data-privacy case. - CBS News

TikTok’s content moderation methods have come under fire

"Tiktok reprotely waited nearly 3 hours to call police in Brazil after a teen's death was levestreamed on the platform, but the company notified its own PR team almost immediately" headline from Business Insider
The Intercept reports that [a] Brazilian teen’s livestream video [of his own suicide] remained up on TikTok for more than an hour and a half, and received nearly 500 comments and 15 complaints, before it was taken down from the platform. Once people in TikTok’s Brazil office became aware of the death, they took steps to mitigate fallout for hours before contacting local authorities. - Business Insider

TikTok says it attempts to remove content created by kids under 13

"TikTok Wants to Grow Up, but Finds It tough to keep kids out" headline from the Wall Street Journal
TikTok, which is owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance Inc., has worked to broaden its appeal to adults, which it believes is critical to its growth and survival. It has also been trying to boot younger children off the app, and is required to take offline all videos made by children under 13 under a settlement it reached [in 2019] with the Federal Trade Commission. - The Wall Street Journal

Why should parents care?

Screen shot of Tiktok
  • TikTok had 800 million monthly active users in April 2020, according to DataReportal.com
  • 41% of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24, according to GlobalWebIndex.com
  • Experts say it’s easy for students to come across mature content or triggering content that could promote self harm or eating disorders
  • TikTok challenges can range from funny and innocent to dangerous or illegal
  • Students can find ways to prevent content from getting flagged and to bypass TikTok’s content filters by using creative hashtags and purposely spelling words wrong
  • Some TikTok cyberbullies are making “Cringe Compilations” on YouTube. They edit together TikTok videos that they deem cringe-worthy. Some Cringe Compilations have gone viral with millions of views

Mature content is all over TikTok

"Young kids could be seeing mature content on TikTok. Here's how to keep them safe." headline from GMA
[An informational security officer in South Carolina] recently asked a classroom of fourth graders about how many of them use TikTok and almost a quarter of the 9-year-olds in the room raised their hands. And he said that kids can get exposed to content darker than your average, funny TikTok video, and that kids are posting and watching suggestive videos, mature discussions, violence and profanity. - GMA

Kids spend a lot of time scrolling through TikTok

"Kids now spend nearly as much time watching TikTok as YouTube in Us, UK and Spain" headline from Tech Crunch.
From May 2019 through February 2020, the average minutes per day kids spent on TikTok increased by 116% in the U.S. to reach 82 minutes… Kids’ average usage of TikTok hit 95 minutes per day during COVID-19 lockdowns compared with just two minutes more — 97 minutes — spent on YouTube. - TechCrunch

What students think of the TikTok App (video interview)

Parents & Students: Contact us if you want to be on one of our video interviews.

Learn to use TikTok’s parental controls

"TikTok Family Pairing is the new feature your kids will hate" headline from Forbes

Are these restrictions completely foolproof? No. Nothing truly is. Managed profiles can even disconnect themselves from Family Pairing (you’ll be notified when they do). But giving parents the ability to manage their teens’ accounts is a big step towards making TikTok a safer place where everyone can have some fun without worrying about inappropriate or predatory behavior. - Forbes

How to make a TikTok account private:

  • Go to your Profile tab
  • Tap the Settings icon in the top right corner
  • Tap Privacy and Safety
  • Turn on Private account
  • Even on a private account, profile information (including profile photo, username, and bio) will be visible to all users

Parents must create their own TikTok account to use TikTok’s Family Pairing

  • Once your (parent) TikTok account is set up, you must link it to your student’s account:
  • ~~Open TikTok on your student’s phone and click the profile icon in the bottom right. Click the menu button in the top right corner. Scroll down to select Digital Wellbeing. Click Family Pairing and select the Teen button
  • ~~Open TikTok on your phone and go to the same screen. Click on Parent
  • ~~Use your teen’s phone to scan the QR code on your device
  • ~~Go to the next screen and click Link Accounts

TikTok’s Family Pairing feature controls include:

  • Screen Time Management: Parents can set limits for how long students can spend on TikTok each day. Students can also watch short videos, that appear in the app, to encourage them to balance their screen time with offline activities
  • Restricted Mode: Parents can filter mature content. Also, set up passwords to lock the settings.
  • Direct Messages: Parents can turn off direct messaging completely or limit who their students can message. The app automatically disables Direct Messages for registered users under the age of 16 (effective April 30, 2020)

What else can parents do?

TikTok logo
  • Learn how to block individual users, report physical danger, and more here
  • Before giving your child access to TikTok, download it, spend some time using it, then determine if it’s safe for your family
    Teach your children to come talk to you, or a trusted adult, if they are ever contacted by a stranger on social media. Remind them to never respond to a stranger’s message, befriend them, or share personal info
  • Ensure that your student is only TikTok friends with people they know in real life (and can verify they are actually who they say they are on social media)
  • Remind your children that their online activity, even under a fake username, can impact their reputation
  • Become a SmartSocial VIP (Very Informed Parent) Member and take our TikTok workshops

Stay involved by letting your kids teach you about TikTok, like Reese Witherspoon

Silhouette Challenge: TikTok filter doesn’t permanently filter naked videos

What is the Silhouette Challenge?

  • Users record a video of themselves, often dancing, with a TikTok red filter applied that makes them look like a dark silhouette
  • The challenge started as a way to promote positive body image

Silhouette Challenge warnings in the news

"TikTok 'Silhouette Challenge' Warnings Issues as Red Light Fliter Removal Videos Abound" headline from Newsweek

After some internet users discovered a method to edit the filter into revealing women’s bodies, brightened versions of the videos were soon shared online. Tutorials on ‘removing the red filter’ have appeared on YouTube, garnering thousands of views.


"Security warning out for TikTok users baring all in silhouette challenge" headline from Eyewitness News ABC 13
This counter-trend has perverted the intentions of the challenge, leading some influencers to warn people against participating in the challenge.

ABC 13 News

Why should parents care about the Silhouette challenge?

  • If students are filming their silhouette challenge videos partially naked or nude, their images are not completely safe and other users can see the original video

What can parents do about the Silhouette Challenge?

  • Talk with your student about positive body image and appropriate clothing for public viewing, regardless of what they think others can see
  • Ask your student if they have participated in the silhouette challenge and if they have, ask them what they were wearing behind the filter
  • Discuss the loss of control over your images and videos when posting them to any social media site
  • Enroll in the SmartSocial VIP (Very Informed Parent) program to learn more about TikTok and more ways to talk with your student about shining online

Want to learn more about TikTok (For Students & Parents)?

Watch this preview of the Smart Social VIP (Very Informed Parent) course: 

Sign up for VIP today to take access this course!


Teens can have a ton of fun expressing their creativity on TikTok. The videos your kids are watching or creating might be harmless, but due to widely reported safety and security dangers, it’s important for parents to be aware of exactly what their kids are doing on TikTok.

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