Sarah Caden: 'Grown-ups are creating a TikTok timebomb for under 10s'

On its website, within its privacy policy, the TikTok app is at pains to point out, several times, that it is “not directed” at children under the age of 13.

In fact, they go so far as to encourage adults to report to them the use of the app by any child under the age of 13. In particular, if you think that TikTok has collected any personal data on a child under 13, there’s an email address through which you can contact them.

Parents, don’t all rush at once.

Forty-one percent of the users of TikTok, the viral short-video app, are aged under 24. Many parents will testify, however, that they are acquainted with countless users who are aged under 13. Personally, I know of plenty of eight-year-olds who use it to the point of being obsessive.

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These children didn’t get on there by using their actual birth dates, obviously. They found an easy way around it – a false year of birth – or an adult did that for them. They used their own mobile phone number, or, perhaps, their own Instagram or other social-media account to sign up or, again, an adult did that for them.

Sure you wouldn’t want them to be left out, right?

TikTok was the third most downloaded non-gaming app in 2019, with 614m downloads. In case you don’t know, it’s a social video app, on which you can create short music and, in particular, lip-sync videos of no more than 15 seconds, or looping videos up to one-minute long. It originated in China – an aspect of it that has fed security concerns, particularly in the US – and is owned by a company called ByteDance, based in Beijing.

In 2017, it merged with, a music-video app with a huge base of teen and younger users, and in the two years since, has exploded as a phenomenon, spawning countless viral music hits – see the success of Old Town Road – dance fads, billions of downloads internationally, and a virus-like infiltration into the lives of our children.

Again, TikTok does not actively direct itself at our children. It doesn’t permit under 13s to use it, but we know – and TikTok knows – that they do. Concerns on this front have seen them improve privacy settings and in terms of what they do with the data of users, they are emphatic that it’s processed outside of China. Interestingly, it was reported only in the last week that TikTok is looking to set up a headquarters in Dublin, bringing it into the EU and distancing it further, at least in people’s minds, from China.

The use of data isn’t the only concern when it comes to children’s engagement of TikTok, however. There’s also the issue of the sexual and violent content they are exposed to, which is not tailored to children because kids aren’t supposed to be on there, and which, should they happen to stray into it, then starts to pop up in their personal feed.

Sure, you may check your child’s TikTok activity weekly, daily, hourly, but these videos are so short they are viewed in a matter of seconds and, as we all know, once seen can’t be unseen.

Do we really feel happy taking these risks?

We seem to make ourselves happy by putting in place as many of the available privacy settings as possible. This way, we imagine giant walls of security erected around our children, while in fact even an account that is set as private leaves their TikTok bio and profile picture viewable to everyone.

TikTok accounts are public by default, by the way. Privacy has to be actively sought.

But we also succeed in reassuring ourselves that while TikTok is not directly aimed at our kids, what they get out of it is good, old-fashioned singing and dancing fun. It’s open, free and uninhibited fun, albeit device-led. Someone does a hilarious video or infectious dance move in Ohio and your kid gets a buzz out of it in Offaly and soon all their friends are doing it and, hell, at least they’re up off their arses and actually doing something active. It can all seem so innocent, but really, is just the singing and dancing the habit they’re taking from TikTok?

Instead, aren’t we simply helping them to develop a social-media habit incredibly early, with all the issues that entails? It is now accepted that interaction via social media has done no favours for the teens and young adults ahead of our kids, and yet we are allowing the next wave to engage thus at a much younger age.

Have we learnt nothing from the millennials ahead of them, who started much later and who are, it is now acknowledged, beset with problems around social anxiety, a crippling lack of self-worth tied in to constantly seeking the likes and negatively comparing themselves to the false realities of others, and an addiction to being constantly on?

And that is what occurs on TikTok. Users can message friends and followers, depending on their settings, commenting on their clips and receiving comments on theirs. They view videos through the same lens as everyone else – comparing themselves, probably unfavourably, against what everyone else is putting out. It is exposing them to trolls – known and unknown to them – and it is a phenomenon of modern-day Irish school yards that the quality of one’s TikTok postings can lead to teasing, shaming and full-on bullying in school.

Personally, I know of two Dublin primary schools where parents have been encouraged to police their children’s TikTok accounts after reports of nasty messaging on the app. Primary schools.

The problem isn’t TikTok per se, it’s the fact that the phenomenon of putting oneself on show, seeking likes, grading oneself and others has found a way into the lives of the under-10s. We haven’t even begun to feel the full effects of social-media use on our teens, who are not yet fully formed, and yet we’ve let it loose on our kids.

It isn’t TikTok’s fault – though if you were really cynical, you could point out that a relatively words-free, visual, snappy and playful format is a masterful way to reel in kids – it’s the fault of us parents, who seem to have this “ah, it’ll be grand” attitude to their activity online, while all evidence around us suggests the opposite.

Before Christmas, in a local playground, I overheard an 11-year-old ask another 11-year-old to hotspot her. She didn’t have access to Wi-Fi and didn’t have any data, but she really needed to access TikTok.

This was a kid, with her friends, who are, if one assumes her parents have the privacy settings up to the max, in the mix with the very people with whom she’s linked up on TikTok. The dopamine fix should have been the very fact of being physically with them, having the craic and hanging out. But she needed more. She needed the hit of the TikTok.

This is, of course, the aim of any app, to keep you coming back, to ensnare your imagination. This is not a crime on the part of TikTok, or even, it could be said, the fault of TikTok.

But it speaks of a leaking down to the youngest minds that life isn’t enough any more in reality. And we can’t blame the kids for that, if it’s we adults who set the example and put the tools in their hands. Put on all the privacy settings you like, but we’ve made social-media creatures of them anyway.

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