TikTok App Review - is it safe?

Updated: November 25, 2020

Related posts about TikTok – don’t worry, details from these blog posts are included below, but feel free to click into each blog post here, if interest: 

What is TikTok? Is it safe?

Note: On August 2, 2018, all Musical.ly accounts were rebranded as TikTok. For all practical purposes, the Musical.ly app no longer exists. 

App Store Description: “TikTok is a global video community. We make it easy for you to watch awesome short videos AND you can also make your own videos by capturing those funny and memorable moments to share with the world. Spice up your videos with our special effects filters, fun stickers, and so much more. Life’s moving fast, so make every second count.” (Apple App Store Link)

Important>On November 9, 2017, Bytedance Technology Co. (headquartered in Beijing, China) acquired Musical.ly, Inc for US $1 billion and merged it with TikTok.

March 2019 update: TikTok surpassed one billion installs worldwide!

Category: Photo & Video

APP Store rating: 12+ 

  • Infrequent/Mild Cartoon or Fantasy Violence
  • Infrequent/Mild Mature/Suggestive Themes
  • Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content and Nudity
  • Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
  • Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor
Vocabulary worth noting: muser = a TikTok user

TikTok parental controls explained:

**Updated November 25, 2020**

TikTok now allows parents to “pair” their device with their child’s device in order to control privacy, searching, content, and more. Specifically, parents can:

  • Set your child’s profile to private
  • Restrict duets (which is when someone grabs your TikTok and sings alongside in their own version)
  • Toggle off the search tool
  • Limit comments on your child’s videos
  • Enable comment restrictions
  • Turn off the ability for other users to see your child’s “likes”
  • Enable content restrictions with Restricted Mode
  • Set a daily time limit with Digital Wellbeing
  • Limit direct messages (DMs), which are unavailable for children under 16 – get that birthday correct!

Or, you can set the toggles below on your child’s device, without you pairing with it, but they can all be changed back. So, maybe you develop a roadmap, where a young, new TikTok user has parents who are paired with his/her device (Parent create a TikTok account > Settings > 3 dots in the upper right > scroll down to Family Pairing) and then as they get older, you un-pair.

TikTok Parental Controls

1. Switch to a private account – this will prevent complete strangers from contacting your child (step 1 in the screen shot above).

2. Change the “Allow others to find me” toggle – an additional layer of privacy to prevent your child’s account from showing up in search results.

3. Opt out of personalized data– this prevents user data from being gathered. And for a company being investigated for privacy violations that’s also based in China, it’s a good idea.

4. Change all SAFETY settings to “friends” – the default safety setting for “who can post comments,” “who can duet with you,” “who can react to your videos” is “Everyone. Although making the account private should ensure strangers can’t find your child, these settings make it so that your child can’t invite strangers in.

NOTE: when setting up the account for the first time, be sure to use the correct birthday. Following their $5.7 million FTC settlement for violating COPPA, TikTok made it really difficult to alter the birthday. Also, now that TikTok ties some of its parental controls to birthday, accuracy is important. This article explains how to submit a support ticket to request a birthday change.

5. Enable Time Management and Restricted Mode – you can find these under “Digital Wellbeing” under “Privacy and safety.” These help with screen time and blocking mature content – both require a 4-digit passcode, which means parents can set them.

TikTok Digital Wellbeing Settings

Check “following” and “followers” from time to time –  just a good idea for any child who isn’t at least 16 to ensure they’re sticking to your rules (see screen shot above).

What else do parents need to know about TikTok?

Some parents really enjoy laughing at the videos with their kids. Parents have told us that with the right monitoring, including the settings above, the 15-second videos are funny, and watching them with your child is a good laugh.

The best way for you to judge this is to create an account for yourself! You be the judge. The first thing you’ll note is that anyone can browse TikTok even without an account (we’re not wild about that, but I get it – TikTok wants people to jump in quickly).

TikTok allows direct messages (DMs). Most social platforms do – including Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This is just a feature to be aware of – not so much because kids might send something dumb, but to make them aware of what could be sent to them by strangers that could be disturbing or exploitive.

NOTE: Starting in April 30, 2020, users under age 16 will not be able to use the DM feature, which is incentive for parents to make sure the account uses the correct birthday! See this article for instructions for changing the birthday on an account (it’s not easy).

Is there pornographic content in TikTok? Honestly, not much. The bigger issue is flat out foul language and explicit lyrics. Everywhere. There is a hidden doorway to a Google search through the Help Center in the “Privacy and Settings.” This is why it’s important on an iPhone to set “Limit Adult Content” in Screen Time. For Android, your best bet is to lock in Safe Search with a DNS block like CleanBrowsing

The app’s creator says age 13+ only, please. Although the app isn’t classified as social media, it still must comply with COPPA and underage data collection. Even then, we’re uncomfortable with middle school students using this app unless parents are well aware of the risks.  

March 2019 update: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined TikTok a record $5.7 million after failing to obtain parental consent for users under 13. TikTok collected names, emails, phone numbers, biographies, and photos of children under 13 (all of which by default is public access). The formal FTC complaint included reports of adults contacting children through the app.

In response, TikTok is now shuttling users under 13 years old to a limited, separate app experience that has more limitations. 

TikTok has also launched six safety videos. They show users how to report inappropriate content, enable restricted mode, limit amount of time spent on the app, control who comments on their videos, control who is able to message them, and a general video to encourage respectful behavior to all users.

Remember – wherever the kids are is where the predators are. For public accounts, there are always going to be trolls. And men looking for pretty, young girls. Parents, just be really open and honest with your kids about this fact. 

Related post: Tricky People – Stranger Danger in the Digital Age

Deleting the app. Maybe you decide that even with these parental controls that you want the app deleted. There are a few extra steps beyond just deleting it from your phone and this will actually delete the account. Manage My Account –> Add phone number (if needed) –> Thinking about removing your account? –> Send Code –> Enter number –> Continue (two times) –> Delete Account. Also remember that if your child is using an Apple device, that they will still have access to the app in the Cloud. The most foolproof way to ensure that it is not downloaded again is to turn off the app store. Check out the section “What if an app was already downloaded” in the related post below for more tips! 

Related post: 3 Reasons to Turn off the App Store

TikTok relies on #hashtags. We did some searches using some typical offenders like “twerk,” “nudez,” and others within TikTok. Most of the obvious, problematic hashtags didn’t turn up any results, which was a pleasant surprise. 

Songs can have explicit lyrics. True, yes. Kids can create their own music videos using any of thousands of popular songs. There’s no way to control this.

There are in-app purchases – be careful! Musers can purchase coins (up to $99.99 worth of them!) and these are shared with other musers to encourage their creativity! How kind. If you’re an iPhone family, be sure to toggle off “In-app purchases” in Screen Time.

Related post: iOS Parental Controls

You can link with other social platforms. In the muser’s profile, there’s a spot to add both an Instagram or YouTube account. This is significant, since once that link is made, TikTok gains access to a ton of information, including contacts. Read the privacy concerns below.

TikTok collects a TON of information about its users. There’s a reason the US Government is investigating TikTok for National Security reasons. Take a look at the types of information it collects from musers (per its Privacy Page):

  • Information you give us. You give us information about you when you register for and/or use the Platform, including your name, age, gender, address, email address, social media login details, telephone number and financial and credit card information and your photograph as well as your language selection.
  • Information you choose to share from your social networks.If you choose to link your social network or public forum account (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google or WeChat) to the Platform, you will provide us or allow your social network to provide us with information from your social network or public forum accounts, including your contact list.
  • Technical Information we collect about you. We automatically collect certain information from you when you use the Platform, including your IP address, location-related data (as described below) or other unique device identifiers, your browsing history (including content you have viewed in the Platform), Cookies (as defined below), your mobile carrier, time zone setting, mobile or device information including the model of your device, your screen resolution, operating system and platform and information regarding your use of the Platform.
  • Behavioral information we collect about you. We also collect information regarding your use of the Services, e.g. your comments on our Platform or any other user-generated content and video content that you generate through and broadcast on our Platform. In addition, we link your contact or subscriber information with your activity on our Platform across all your devices using your email or social media log-in details.
  • Location data.
  • Your phone and Facebook contacts.
  • Messages. 
  • Metadata uploaded with each video.

I think people would be surprised to know that although this is a long list of bullets, it’s actually quite consistent with most social media platforms. But, we believe it’s helpful to show a list like this to kids who use the app to remind them that nothing is private online! Nothing!

The bottom line – is TikTok safe for your kids?

Although the parental controls above are good, recent evidence points to TikTok acting more like malware, collecting as much user information as possible.  In addition to the privacy concerns, the biggest risks are vulgarity and just the “I want to be a TikTok Star!” pull that is so heavy. This app is all about views and views = popularity. It can be quite destructive to the mental health and time management of teens. 

In our opinion, TikTok is an age 15+ app when you weigh all of the features and risks above.  

Now What? Have you Heard of Bark?

Are you interested in having greater insight into the social media platforms that your kids are using? Bark is one of the best platforms we’ve tested. They’re constantly looking for ways to dig further into apps like TikTok, to alert parents. We trust them and we think you should, too!

*There are affiliate links throughout this post because we’ve tested and trust a small list of parental control solutions. Our work saves you time! If you decide that you agree with us, then we may earn a small commission, which does nothing to your price. Enjoy! 

NEW Protect Young Eyes Logo (2020)

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