Parent's Guide to TikTok

Is TikTok safe? How does it work? And can I do a duet with my kid? Everything you need to know about this popular musical singing and sharing app.

TikTok is a mobile app that allows users to create unique short videos that range from 15 seconds to 60 seconds. Users can add unique filters, stickers, and all kinds of fun video editing software options, so anyone can become a content creator.


Parent Guide to Tik Tok

Tiktok seems to attract users and negative publicity in equal measures.  Many of its current and would-be users are children but is TikTok safe for kids?

TikTok is easily accessible.  Kids can access it on iOS and Android from a free download and set up an account with ease. This TikTok guide and review looks at TikTok's suitability for kids and advises parents on what precautions they should take with the app.

What is TikTok?

Tiktok is a video-based social network where users can both upload videos they have created and view those made by other people. The videos usually feature music but are very varied in style including humour, dance, memes, lipsynching, tips and many more.  

How safe is TikTok?

Those who sign up to TikTok can create videos, just watch other people's or a mixture of both. The users of the TikTok app can comment on videos and send direct messages. TikTok is not designed to be a kids' app but is TikTok safe for kids?  

There are three functions of the app that must be considered to decide whether Tiktok for kids can be a safe experience. For each child, the answer might be different. Sensitivity, maturity, and other personality traits can change what for one child is a fun and entertaining experience into one that is unsafe and harmful for another.

Kids Watching TikTok Videos

Those who just watch the videos created by others avoid the safety issues of sharing and communicating with other people whom they might not know. However, there is content on TikTok that is definitely unsuitable for children and it is not difficult to find. Videos and comments can be overtly sexual, contain bad language, be racist and encourage unsafe behaviour and more. 

There have been videos and comments in TikTok where suicide and self-harm have been referred to in callous ways or even encouraged. 

Parents should be aware that TikTok does not have a robust means of checking children's ages when they first sign up to TikTok. Its content can also be viewed using the app even without having kids create a TikTok account.

Kids Sharing on Tiktok

Any social media can be unsafe for children as its very nature is that of two-way communication. Kids don't just want to watch videos on TikTok - they want to make their own. Clearly, this means that children will be sharing images of themselves as well as potential backgrounds that show their location, favourite places to visit and other aspects of their lives. Adult users of TikTok have interacted with children in very inappropriate or predatory ways.

People of all ages have been distressed by the response of others to their TikTok videos. They have been judged against stereotypes and prejudices triggered by background details seen in videos. Users with mental health issues have been cruelly treated by commenters. The experience of any social media, including Tiktok for kids, has no guarantee of being pleasant.

Kids Communicating on Tiktok

Videos can be commented on. This is not always a positive experience as other users can be cruel about the appearance of the person in the video or about some aspect of their lives that might be inferred from the video's background.

There exists the risk that adults commenting on children's videos may use this as a way to gain the confidence of kids on TikTok. Flattery and praise are what children posting videos hope to achieve and when they receive them, they may be open to manipulation by a stranger they have come to like. 

TikTok also has a direct-messaging capability that lets people marked as friends on the app chat directly with one another - remember TikTok friends might not be friends from real life.

How does TikTok work?

Watching Tiktoks

Those who download TikTok just to watch videos produced by other people, browse and search for content to watch. The app asks for each user's interests and uses the answer and the subsequent app usage to recommend new content to them.

Each video is short and loops continuously. Swiping the screen moves on to the next video and a huge amount of videos can be watched in a very short time. Users can comment on videos and recommend them to their friends.

Creating Tiktoks

Kids aren't likely just to want to watch TikTok videos - many will want to produce their own. For dances and lip-synching videos, users will start with the music. In other types of video, the music, if any, will be added later.

The music is selected from a huge bank of music clips that is provided by TikTok. The number of clips allows variety but the clips themselves are limited to a fixed snippet of songs. They are approved for use by the music owners.  

It is not possible to define your own music clips to be used in this way although a music track could be included in the video recording. Video creators must be careful when doing this, though, as there may be issues of copyright infringement.

The video and the sound of a TikTok creation can be embellished with various effects. Text, filters, images and more can be added to videos and the sound can be distorted or altered in various ways. TikTok, for kids, will not be difficult to learn.  

Tiktok creators want their videos to be watched by as many people as possible so they use hashtags to make the videos more easily searchable. These work as they do in other forms of social media - they link content with similar inspirations and subjects in a way that people can easily find them.

Finally, TikTok videos are published and, if a user's videos are open to everybody, the world will get to see them. With millions of users, many of whom create content frequently, any single video is unlikely to become famous but creators pursue this aim with gusto.

Is TikTok appropriate for kids?

Once you have thought about the safety and privacy aspects of TikTok something you might want to think about further is whether TikTok for kids is a good experience.  

On the one hand, Tiktok for kids is entertaining and fun. A quick swipe and boring videos are gone while enjoyable ones loop over and over again.

This quick-burst like experience is accused by some of harming young people's attention spans. TikTok learns what kids like and sends more of the same their way. The videos' short lengths promote a just-one-more mindset that can lead to users spending far longer than is healthy consuming the app's content.

Parents should not forget with any form of social media that its goal is not to entertain but to keep its users engaged. While using Tiktok, kids are viewing its advertisements and marketing and providing it with more data about themselves.

Can kids under 13 use TikTok?

TikTok's user agreement prohibits its use by children aged under 13. Parents of children under this age should make sure that their kids do not create TikTok accounts or download the TikTok app.

What age is TikTok recommended for?

The closer your kids are to the minimum age of 13, the more carefully you should think about whether TikTok is safe for kids.  

TikTok is great at what it does but it isn't a kid's app. Each teen's personality will play a part in how they respond to the negative possibilities of TikTok use. Whatever you decide about your kid's use of Tiktok, no child should be left to use it without some parental supervision.

How can you make your TikTok account private?

All users should review the Privacy and Safety settings in the TikTok app.

By default, each new TikTok account is set to public, meaning anyone can view the user's videos and likes.  Switching this to private means that the user gets to approve who can view their videos and see their likes.

Also on by default is the setting to allow everyone to discover the account. Other TikTok users with similar interests might receive a recommendation to follow the account or find it in a search. This can result in videos being watched by people all over the world.

Some other safety settings are more nuanced than just on or off. Direct messaging can either be fully off or just allowable between friends. Who can comment on videos, or duet with videos can be selected from just the user, just friends, or everyone.  

Remember that friends in TikTok, like in all social media, may not be people that the user knows in real life. 

Finally, there is the option to enable or disable behavioural advertising. If this is allowed, advertisements can use your child's past use of the device to serve ads that are calculated to be most effective on them. If it is not allowed, advertisements will still appear but they will not be based on your child's past use of their device. This might not seem very important but behavioural advertising is a powerful means of influence that can ensure a brand or product is repeatedly brought to your child's attention.

How do I delete a TikTok video?

Draft videos, those being created rather than having been published, are permanently gone when the app is removed from the device or they can be deleted using the typical user interface for your child's device.

Once published, videos can be deleted by visiting them in the user's profile and then selecting the options button and progressing through to delete. There are ways of downloading TikTok videos, making copies that the creator cannot control, so deletion is not something that should be relied upon.  

How can I delete a TikTok account?

The exact process for deleting a TikTok account depends upon how it was set up.  

Probably the most typical method for kids who set up TikTok accounts is that of using an email. Starting from the main screen, select Me then tap the 3 dots at the top right of the screen. Finally, select Manage my account.  At the bottom of the next screen, is the option to delete the account.

It is very easy to reinstate a deleted account within the TikTok app.  

How can I use TikTok with my kids?

The safety and privacy settings of TikTok should be carefully chosen and not just left as defaults. The more restrictive they are, the further the TikTok experience may be from what your child wants but the more their privacy and safety will be protected.

You could set up a shared account that you use for making videos together. If you are selective about who you accept as friends and make the videos only available to them, you can avoid many of the security and privacy issues that can come with TikTok's use.

How do you do a duet on TikTok?

Duets are popular with kids on TikTok. One person creates and uploads a video. One of their followers can then take that video as the basis for their own and record themselves along with it, switching the video between themselves and the original creator - forming a duet.

Duets have been used as ways for people to interact inappropriately with the original creator. They have turned what might have begun as an innocent dance video into something much cruder.

What are TikTok Challenges?

Sometimes an idea, activity, or style in a TikTok video catches the attention of a wide audience as the TikTok users share it. More users then try to replicate or adapt the original video and these videos are shared, leading to even more publicity for the idea or style.  

They're called challenges because their popularity becomes something of a challenge for others to repeat them in some way. Many of these TikTok challenges have been purely fun but others have been potentially dangerous and are risky for anyone to copy, but especially kids.

Challenges on TikTok were once spontaneous but as with many things that catch on in social media, brands and products have adopted them for their purposes. Reputable brands are not likely to make challenges that have a high risk but they will expose children to an increased amount of marketing materials.

Does TikTok have parental controls?

TikTok does have some parental controls but they miss out many of the settings including those that could place children at risk. You cannot limit who can see your child's videos, who can comment on them, who can duet with them or block accounts. These can be set within your child's app but there is no way to ensure they stay as you put them. The settings page cannot be protected by a PIN or password.

In-app control

Within the app, you can set a passcode. This can be used to lockdown just two settings.  

One of these is a time limit. When the time you have selected is up, your child won't be able to use TikTok until your passcode is entered. The other is Restricted Mode which helps to limit inappropriate content.  

This is far from foolproof, though, and inappropriate content often slips through the TikTok filters. It can be reported to prevent it from being seen by other children but this does not help those who already have.  

TikTok Family Pairing

Similar controls to those in-app settings can be used from a parent's device. To do this you will need to download the TikTok app for yourself and set up a TikTok account. From your child's device and TikTok app, you then snap the QR code in the Family Pairing section of your app. Now, you can limit screen time and activate the content restrictions from your device. An advantage of using this method is that you can also control who can send your child direct messages - something not possible in the in-app settings.

One thing to remember is that parents can only monitor kids' TikTok accounts of which they know. You could forbid the use of TikTok or you could have parental controls set up to monitor your child's account but they could have an account they have never told you about. It is not difficult to create an email address and set up a new TikTok account.

How can I monitor my kid's activity on TikTok?

One way of monitoring a kid's TikTok account is to share a jointly-made account. This will let you have some control over the app and see what your child has posted. However, teens are not likely to be in favour of such close supervision. There is a legitimate privacy issue as you will be able to see messages exchanged between this account and your child's friends.

What we love about TikTok

However you feel about the TikTok platform, it cannot be denied that there are some marvellously creative videos out there. This makes it very entertaining. Within the restrictions of the short format and the app's editing and embellishment tools, people have made funny, moving, and impressive videos.

What skills does it improve

As well as being content consumers, kids who download TikTok can be content producers. They can apply their creativity and imagination to produce something that people want to watch. Kids can learn how to refine ideas, respond to feedback, and work within limitations.

How will kids benefit?

Other forms of social media focus purely on communication and sharing of personal stories, opinions and experiences. Tiktok is based around the sharing of creative ideas in the form of videos. This makes kids' TikTok experiences more than just about projecting a carefully crafted image of their lives and comparing them to those of others.

How will parents benefit?

There is educational content to be found on the platform and kids who want to use TikTok might well point it out to their parents. Linked under hashtags like #learnwithtiktok are short videos giving tips and facts on maths and science as well as makeup and cooking.  

TikTok also wants to increase its educational content as shown by a recent (June 2020) investment to bring maths and history content into TikTok. It is safe to say, though, that education regarding school subjects is likely to remain limited on TikTok.  

There are much better and safer ways of accessing learning materials than using TikTok. Parents are not likely to see much educational benefit from their kids using it.

Should I be concerned about TikTok's security? 

TikTok's security and privacy has received a lot of publicity. The TikTok app has had capabilities that, whether by design or by accident, have left user's private data at risk.   

In the US, TikTok has been fined for collecting children's data without parental consent. Other investigations into TikTok have not found it to be employing any methods that go beyond what other social media platforms are using but, considering all of these platforms' thirst for information about their users, this is not reassuring.

Overall rating of the app

Kids will spend the majority of their TikTok time watching others' videos, not being creative themselves. Any educational content on TikTok is going to be far from what has attracted most kids' interest in TikTok.

Tiktok is a difficult app to rate in relation to kids and education. The 3 stars awarded acknowledges that the app does what it sets out to do perfectly but also acknowledges that it is not educational and it exposes young users to risks.  

Parents should judge TikTok on its entertainment value set against the risks intrinsic in its use and weigh this against their child's sense of responsibility and maturity. Be very cautious with kids under the age of 16 when it comes to TikTok.