- TikTok is an app that lets users share 15-second videos.
- Meme culture is huge on TikTok, leading to lots of shareable “challenges.”
- Though TikTok has partnered with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), there are safety concerns with the app.
We all spent the summer listening to “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a song that made headlines for having the longest streak ever atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, holding the No. 1 spot for 19 weeks. But despite its chart success, the radio wasn’t the first place to debut “Old Town Road” — the TikTok app was. Lil Nas X posted a video to the app, it became a meme, and the rest is country-music-hip-hop-hybrid history. Just one question remains: What, exactly, is TikTok, and what’s the purpose of the TikTok app?
TikTok is an app that lets users record short and post short videos.
In the U.S., it started as the lip-syncing website Musical.ly, until it was acquired by a Beijing-based company in 2018 and merged into the Chinese TikTok. Now, while you can still find a great deal of lip-synching, video content is basically whatever creators choose — so long as it adheres to a 15-second limit.
“TikTok, for all of its faults, is incredibly fun — and addictive ,” says Titania Jordan, Chief Parenting Officer of parental-control app Bark. “It’s popular with Generation Z in particular because it manages to combine humor, music, dancing, performance, and entertainment, — all in an endless scroll of micro-content that becomes tailored to what you enjoy watching thanks to a powerful algorithm.”
There’s also the lure of possible Lil Nas X-size fame, with users hoping to earn a spot on the “For You” page, which is broadcast to everyone. Others just want to take part in a running gag. “Meme culture is huge within TikTok, with challenges popping up constantly,” Jordan says. “Kids then try to top the trend with their own take on it.”
Memes and challenges run the gamut of weirdness (to a parent’s eyes, at least), from friends who try to throw cheese slices at each other in the hopes that one will stick to another’s head, to girls who dance to angry voicemails from ex-boyfriends.
But is TikTok safe for kids?
TikTok allows users to connect to others and see content that parents can’t filter, which has left some parents wondering if TikTok is safe for kids. While there are privacy features, parental controls don’t exist on the app.
“Users can contact anyone in the world due to the public nature of the platform,” Jordan says. “Although you can block or report others for inappropriate messages, TikTok has no broader parental controls.”
“Like any social media platform that has a direct message or commenting feature, there’s always the possibility that your child could be chatting with anyone — including strangers,” she adds. “And since TikTok is a platform that encourages performance, that can make it easy for predators to use flattery and compliments as a way into kids’ lives, making them feel special while putting them at ease.”
You can lock down your own account, but that doesn’t block out content from others. “Even if you set your own account to private, you may still be exposed to sexual or violent content posted to the public feed,” she says. “This sort of content can range from overtly sexual TikToks, to physically dangerous stunts that kids may want to recreate, to overtly racist and discriminatory commentary.”
And, of course, there’s the social tension that come with any feed that allows reactions. “Kids may get sucked into the pressure to create more and better content, and this can cause anxiety — especially if they’re not getting popular,” Jordan says.
“TikTok, like other social media platforms, can also be prone to cyberbullying,” she adds. When videos aren’t funny or successful, they can be called ‘cringey’ — and it provides fodder for bullies to make fun of them. Cyberbullying and trolling are major issues on TikTok. Kids who admit to depression are often met with dismissive and sarcastic reactions; some are even publicly encouraged to commit suicide.”
Less seriously, TikTok can end up costing you, too: Fans can do in-app purchases — one of the ways that TikTok makes money, along with brand partnerships — to gift to their favorite content creators. (The creators may be able to make money if they get big enough fanbases, but they have to split the proceeds from the gifts they receive with the app.)
TikTok offers ways to help its users make better use of its safety features.
To enhance awareness of its its safety features, TikTok announced a partnership with the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). “TikTok offers a home for creative expression and an experience that is genuine, joyful, and positive, which resonates strongly with FOSI’s mission to encourage families to share their online experiences positively and talk with kids about what they do online,” it said in a statement. Through the partnership, TikTok offers safety tips, a parental guide, and educational videos to learn how to better manage the controls on the site.
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