In the age of “digital parenting,” it is nearly impossible to keep up with social media trends. One day, kids are enthralled by an app that transforms them into a unicorn. The next, you’re considered “uncool” if you use it.
As of late, an extremely popular app among children and teens, which in turn has caused concerns for educators and parents, is TikTok.
TikTok is an application built around short-form videos where users can lip-sync to popular songs, create their own music videos or string together a number of short clips in quick succession.
We spoke with Sam Jingfors, vice president of Safer Schools Together, about TikTok’s recent fining for child privacy violations and how adults can ensure this app and other apps are being used appropriately.
This summer, TikTok was fined* $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission for violating the Child’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The app failed to seek explicit parental consent before collecting the names, email addresses and other personal information for users under the age of 13.
While TikTok’s violation gained much national attention due to the fact that it was the highest monetary penalty applied to a social media company regarding privacy, these violations are extremely common among businesses geared towards children.
“Overall, we’ve seen other companies — including Disney and Google — be fined smaller monetary penalty violations for the lack of privacy protections on their platform,” Jingfors says. “I think these are very big players that are ultimately competing for kids’ attention on their platform, which equals monetary value for them. I think this will be an ongoing battle moving forward with all social media companies.”
The Dangers of Oversharing Personal Information
Of course, one of the biggest concern for parents and teachers regarding these violations is the possibility of minors’ personal information getting into the hands of the wrong people.
Jingfors says the biggest deterrent to this is having a conversation with children and students about making sure they are not oversharing personal details on social media.
“If you take a glance at TikTok and look at the videos that are coming up on the home feed and click on those user’s profiles, it’s not going to take you very long to be able to find very overt disclosures by students on their own biographies of their platform. This is not specific to TikTok — this happens on Instagram and it happens on YouTube,” Jingfors says, “For example, students will say, ‘Follow me on my other platforms,’ and, ‘Here’s the school that I attend,’ and, ‘Here’s my age.’ It’s actually a lot of self-disclosure by students on their own platforms that lead to the oversharing of information.”
Many videos posted by children through TikTok are taken in their home, which Jingfors says can give a lot away about a child.
“So if they’re dancing around their bedroom lip syncing to a Taylor Swift song, what we’re concerned about on the adult side is what’s in the background of that bedroom,” he warns. “What can be seen on the walls, for example, can give someone intimate knowledge about a child. Those are the pieces that we want parents to be aware of.”
Encouragingly, Jingfors says TikTok has several privacy protections in place that many other social media platforms do not. For instance, TikTok doesn’t allow users to send videos or images through direct messaging, unlike other popular platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
“For individuals that are looking to exploit children that are quite often soliciting sexting or inappropriate, explicit-related photos from users and young people, those images can’t be sent over TikTok,” says Jingfors. “The issue is with predators attempting to direct children to a different platform to be able to share that information.”
Stay on Top of Social Media Trends
As Jingfors puts it, TikTok is the “flavor of the week” and the popularity of apps is constantly changing. Adults should be on the lookout for other emerging and continuing trends.
This past school year, mobile video games captured much attention, such as PUBG and Fortnite. Anonymous Q&A social media platforms also continue to be popular, bringing up the pervasive issue of bullying.
“Dating back several years ago, it was the Ask.fm. Then it was Whisper, Yik Yak and After School App. But this past school year, we’ve seen an app called Sarahah and then another app called Tellonym,” says Jingfors. “Throughout the school year, you’re going to have ebbs and flows of apps that come into play for a couple of weeks and then fade into the abyss.”
Although it can be overwhelming, staying in the know on social media trends and speaking with children about proper usage will undoubtedly make a difference in their safety.
*The FTC violation was levied against California-based company Musical.ly. The violation was carried over after the company was bought by ByteDance and rebranded as TikTok in November 2017.
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