Is TikTok Stalking Our Kids?

Stephanie Gruner Buckley
Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

It’s 9:33 a.m. on a Saturday and I have no idea what my 12-year-old daughter is up to. But I know who does: TikTok

In just a few years, TikTok has picked up roughly a billion monthly users in more than 150 countries. Chances are your kid is one of them.

Stats show that young people are averaging nearly an hour a day on TikTok. 90% of users visit the app more than once a day. In my kid’s case, it’s multiple times a day.

In 2021, the average number of monthly users is expected to surpass those of the world’s largest social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube.

See more fun facts on TikTok here.

I’m as concerned by how much time my kid spends boogying before a tiny screen as I am by what TikTok knows about her.

  1. TikTok knows more about its users than most apps. This is because most sites gauge customer preferences based on “active online behaviours” — videos liked or shared, accounts followed, comments posted and content created. But TikTok feeds its algorithm passive behaviour patterns as well — how fast we scroll past certain content or let a video loop. That said, all apps are growing more sophisticated at mapping user preferences.
  2. All apps are scrambling to know as much as possible about their customers. But TikTok is scarily good at it, according to an anonymous software engineer who claims to have reverse-engineered TikTok (and got lots of media attention). Says the engineer: companies try to track everything happening on their apps, but TikTok logs what’s happening in users’ homes as well. TikTok knows about users’ phone hardware, disk space, screen size, memory and even deleted apps, along with network-related details such as router information and wifi access point names. What’s more, TikTok actively prevents users from figuring out exactly what it knows. Don’t be fooled, the anonymous engineer concludes, this app is a data collection business masquerading as a social network, and it should be avoided. (See updated information on this research here).
  3. TikTok stores photos and videos, which takes the app inside people’s homes and schools and other buildings. Concerned about security risks, the US military banned service members from using TikTok on government-issued devices, and encouraged military personnel and their families to remove the app from personal phones as well. As with many apps, the data could be used to track troop locations and their movements.
  4. The app is accused of violating US state law by scanning and storing kids’ faces (and facial geometries) without parental consent. The company is also accused of failing to disclose what it does with this data.
  5. Then there’s the whole problem of creepy middle-aged guys knowing what my kid is up to. The good news is that a 2021 app update defaults all users under 16 to a private instead of a public setting. With a private account, only someone a user approves can see their videos. This makes children less vulnerable to intractions with strangers. Duets with under 16s are blocked. In addition, videos created by anyone under 16 are restricted by default from download. Of course, settings can be changed. To be safe, my kid has a private account and can only friend/let follow other kids she knows personally. This seems to be working. At least for now.

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Writer, mom, wife, news junkie (not necessarily in that order). Londoner and native Floridian.


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