TikTok: Fear, Facts, And Confusion
How Juvenoic Moral Panic Can Often Lead to Mis/Dis-information
As a social media safety and digital literacy company that has presented to over half a million teens, and tens of thousands of parents from across North America, we are constantly asked, “what is the most dangerous app out there for kids that we parents should be aware of?” Our answer, It’s not the app or social network, it’s how the teens use the app or social network that makes it dangerous. Upon parents hearing this, the next question is, “Well, what about TikTok and all the horrible things that are going on in that app. We have been told that the Chinese Government is collecting our personal information because they own the app”
In Chapter 1 of my recently released free web book “Parenting in An Online World” https://www.thewhitehatter.ca/book-list I wrote the following:
“Sociologist Dr. David Finkelhor coined the term ‘Juvenoia.’ Dr. Finkelhor defines Juvenoia as,
“A moral panic occurs when a segment of society believes that the behaviour or moral choices of others within that society poses a significant risk to the society as a whole” (1).
Juvenoia is nothing new, in 400 BC the philosopher Plato stated, “….writing will cease to exercise memory because people will not rely on that which is written” (2). In 1876 the new tech device called a phone was demonized (3), in 1889 electricity and the lightbulb was seen to be an “unrestrained demon” (4), in 1895 bicycles were believed to cause a health concern known as “bicycle face” in women (5), in the 1930’s psychiatrists believed that radio, and even too much reading, would ruin the moral fabric of teens (6). In the 1940s, the medical community believed that some comic books, like Batman and Robin, would promote homosexuality in teens (7). Then in the 1950s, it was Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Rock & Roll that would ruin the moral fabric of teens (8). In the 1960s, it was television (9). In the 1980s, it was a board game called Dungeons and Dragons (10). Today, it’s smartphones and video games that are going to ruin the moral fabric of our youth.
As Professor Shapiro of Temple University stated in 2019,
“Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done by immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future” (11).
We couldn’t agree more with Professor Shapiro’s statement. Most parents reading this article were born and raised in one of the above-noted generations, and we would argue that most of us are doing ok. We would suggest that this generation of teens is going to be ok as well.
Juvenoia is also a catalyst for what psychologist Dr. Odgers in 2019 called a “parental moral panic”. As Dr. Odgers stated,
“We’re all looking in the wrong direction. The real threat isn’t smartphones, it’s the campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators” (12).
I must admit when TikTok first became popular with our youth I had some real and justified concerns about some of the content that was accessible to youth, and the app’s lack of parental controls and privacy protection. However, this is also true for many other platforms that are popular with youth today such as; Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. However, today, unlike the other big social media players being used by youth, TikTok has more parental controls and privacy protection in place than all their competitors. Something I will speak to in this article.
There has been a lot of discussions, by parents and some social media safety educators, surrounding the safety, security, and privacy of the TikTok app. Many of these discussions surround what parents have “heard” to be some of the dangers associated with the app, and the challenges specific to youth protection and the privacy of their information on the TikTok platform.
Concerns from Parents and Other Social Media Safety Advocates:
So, what are some of those concerns that I have heard from both parents, and other social media safety advocates, about TikTok?
“TikTok Servers are located In China and therefore the Communist Government of China has access to those servers”
Investigation: (false, but)
Presently, TikTok has two servers one in the USA, and a second backup server is located in Singapore (13). It does appear that in the past Musical.ly, which merged into TikTok, did have servers that were located and could be accessed in China. Also, TikTok is in the process of building a server in Ireland to help them comply with privacy laws in Europe known as the GDRP. There is absolutely no evidence that I could find that shows that China has direct access to these servers “today”.
Note: I was able to find a 2020 court document where plaintiffs allege that in an email to them, TikTok stated that prior to February 2019 TikTok data “may” have been processed in China (14). It should also be stated that these allegations have not been proven in court at this time.
“TikTok is owned by a Chinese Businessman, and therefore he is required by Chinese Law to provide access to all data collected by TikTok.”
Investigation (true and false)
Yes, TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance Ltd. TikTok does business through subsidiaries of ByteDance Ltd (15)., which is backed by global institutional investors including Coatue, General Atlantic, KKR, Sequoia Capital, Susquehanna International, and Softbank. Yes, the founder and CEO is a Chinese citizen, but the board of directors for ByteDance is not.
Given that the TikTok servers are not presently located in China, Chinese law does not apply specifically to unfettered access to the current TikTok servers.
“We have read that both the US Justice Department and the US Federal Trade Commission are investigating TikTok for not deleting postings of youth under the age of 13yrs in violation of the Children Online Protection of Privacy Act (16). In fact, we have heard that TikTok was fined 5.7 million dollars to settle allegations that it collected and sold personal information of those under 13yrs on their platform.”
Investigation (true, but)
Yes, in the early days when ByteDance purchased and rebranded musical.ly to TikTok, they were investigated by the above noted US agencies. In fact, TikTok who took over Musical.ly, agreed to pay a 5.7 million dollar fine for this COPPA violation (17).
Since being fined, TikTok has worked hard to overcome this privacy challenge, and these US agencies are no longer investigating TikTok for COPPA violations. In fact, since the first half of 2020, TikTok has removed over “104,543,719 videos were removed globally for violations of their Community Guidelines or Terms of Service, which is less than 1% of all videos uploaded to TikTok” according to their Sept 2020 Transparency Report (18).
Perspective is important, in 2019 U.S. based Google and YouTube (Google owns YouTube) were fined $170 million dollars for knowingly and illegally harvesting personal information from children and using it to profit by targeting these youth with ads (19).
“If the US military is banning TikTok because of privacy issues with China, then that’s good enough for me not to download the app onto my personal phone.”
Investigation (true, but)
Yes, many branches of the US military did ban the use of TikTok because of their fears of China harvesting personal data from their soldiers, sailors and airmen/women, but neither the Canadian or British military followed suit. (20) There is just no credible evidence that we could find to support that TikTok presently sends any data to China, and there is no solid proof that any information is pulled from users’ devices over and above the prying data grabs typical of all social media platforms. None!
Again, perspective is important; public statements from Edward Snowden have been made that the U.S. Government is harvesting personal information from social media companies based in the U.S. without warrant (21). Given this fact, this specific privacy concern should be applied to the downloading of any U.S. based app for the same reasons being applied to TikTok. Just saying!
“TikTok does not allow for parental controls.”
Since late 2020, TikTok is the only app, of the top 4 apps that are most popular with youth (TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube), to actually have parental controls that cannot be turned off by the youth via the TikTok “Family Pairing Function” (22). Also, TikTok is the only app that if a youth joins TikTok, and is under the age of 16, their account is:
· Automatically set to private – which the youth can’t change
· They can’t receive or send direct messages
· They can’t download videos
· They won’t receive messages from people who are not following them
· Tighter restrictions on comments that parents can control
· Access to the “Duet” and “Stitch” function will only be available to those over the age of 16yrs. For those between the ages of 16-17 years, the default setting will be “friends” only
· If the child attempts to opt-out of Family Pairing, a parent will be immediately notified via their Family Pairing
Yes, youth under the age of 16 can lie about their age; however, this is where proper parenting needs to play a role. Remember, the device or app that youth under the age of 16 possesses is not a right to have, they are a privilege to have. If a youth under the age of 16 has a TikTok app on their device that is not set to private by default, then they have lied about their age which is a violation of TikTok’s Terms of Service. In this case, we believe the parent should delete the App from their child’s phone, or report it to TikTok who will take it down. Be your child’s best parent and not their best friend when it comes to any app or social media platform, there is a difference. Unfortunately, parental abdication specific to parenting their children online is not uncommon.
Personally, we believe that an open, non-privatized TikTok account is not appropriate for those youth under the age of 16yrs.
“We were told not to download the TikTok App, and their Family Pairing Function, onto the parent phone because you are giving China access to the personal information that is on your phone like your bank account.”
See Comment #1 and #2 above. There is just no credible evidence that I can find that supports this claim.
“TikTok is currently collecting my personal information and selling it to third parties.”
Investigation (false, but)
“We share the categories of personal information listed above with service providers and business partners to help us perform business operations and for business purposes, including research, payment processing and transaction fulfillment, database maintenance, administering contests and special offers, technology services, deliveries, email deployment, advertising, analytics, measurement, data storage and hosting, disaster recovery, search engine optimization, marketing, and data processing. These service providers and business partners may include:
Payment processors and transaction fulfillment providers, who may receive the information you choose to provide, the information we obtain from other sources, and the information we collect automatically but who do not receive your message data.
Customer and technical support providers, who may receive the information you choose to provide, the information we obtain from other sources, and the information we collect automatically.
Researchers, who may receive the information you choose to provide, the information we obtain from other sources, and the information we collect automatically but would not receive your payment information or message data.
Cloud providers, who may receive the information you choose to provide, the information we obtain from other sources, and the information we collect automatically.
Advertising, marketing, and analytics vendors, who may receive the information you choose to provide, the information we obtain from other sources, and the information we collect automatically but would not receive your payment information or message data.”
TikTok is the first to admit publicly that when they first took over and rebranded musically, it was not the best platform for youth from a safety, security and privacy standpoint. However, since 2020, TikTok has progressed by leaps and bounds to fix the less-than-desirable challenges of the past in several ways:
· The creations of their “Transparency Center” (24).
· The creation and staffing of their Trust & Safety Team.
· They are working closely with law enforcement (25).
· They have a lengthy but mostly understandable Privacy and Terms of Service Policy (26).
· They have moved their servers to the U.S. and Singapore and presently building one in Ireland to meet GDRP Privacy regulations in Europe (27).
· It’s the only app, of the top four that are most popular with youth, to have true parental controls.
· It’s the only app of the top four that are most popular with youth, to immediately set the app to private for those under the age of 16yrs.
· Are there less-than-desirable activities that take place on TikTok? Yes, just like any other app out there on the market, and being used by youth. Remember, it’s not the app, it’s how a person uses the app that makes it desirable or less-than-desirable. This is why scaffolded digital parenting is so important.
· Do we believe TikTok is appropriate for those under the age of 16yrs, NO. However, their new private by default for those under the age of 16 does help to alleviate some of our concerns for younger teens, but only if the teen doesn’t lie about their age.
· Do we think a 16+ teen should have free-range on the app without any parental overwatch? NO, and that is why we like the Family Pairing option that should be mandatory until the youth can demonstrate good digital citizenship and maturity on the App. Remember, the app is not a right to have, it’s a privilege to have.
Full disclosure, we have a White Hatter TikTok page, cringy – yes, but fun – absolutely! Much like all the other apps that are popular with youth, there are some questionable and at times ugly, adult-oriented content that does take place on TikTok that youth shouldn’t see, but we think there are way more positive creative things as well. Unlike many of their competitors, TikTok has shown due diligence to make their platform “safer” for youth, and continue to do so more than any other popular teen apps. Noticed we said “safer” not “safe”. There is no app or platform on the market that can guarantee 100% safety, that’s why parenting in the online world matters.
Is TikTok bleeding personal information from their platform to China, it’s our belief, based upon the credible evidence we located, that since February 2019, the answer is probably not. We will likely see more light shone on this issue as several court cases make their way through the U.S. courts.
Being a teenager is all about curiosity, the joy of discovery, and peer engagement and this, in our opinion, is what makes TikTok so popular with youth. In fact, this is what we have heard from many of the 500,000 teens that we have presented to. It is because of this fact; many other platforms are now adopting similar TikTok functionality in their apps.
Social media is also about connection, and it is mind-blowing to see how so many teens on TikTok are finding community with one another. They use TikTok to initiate positive social change, share ideas, promote their creativity, solve problems, and to create a sense of belonging for those who are often shunned by others, like teens who identify as LGBTQ+, to name a few.
For adults who believe that teens no longer have big ideas, or are not as creative as the youth of the past, they haven’t taken an “eyes wide open” approach to the vast positives that TikTok can provide, but rather a filtered view because of the minority of the bad on the platform that is often highlighted in modern media.
Remember, when we share our concerns with our kids about their onlife world, we should do so in a way that ties into where they are today, and is relevant to their life and appeals to their intelligence and experience. This will help them make good online decisions. TikTok is where the teens are today, and as parents, we should tie into this fact and engage with appropriate parental participation, communication, and yes parental supervision specific to TikTok. If one of these are missing, then yes bad things can happen on TikTok, but this is also true for any other app or social media platform on the market today.
To reiterate one more time:
· Should those under 16 have access to TikTok – our opinion, NO.
· Should those who are 16+ have unsupervised free-range access to TikTok – Not unless “Family Pairing” is engaged and used until such time as your child can demonstrate good digital citizenship and maturity on the app, or is now old enough where direct parental overwatch is no longer required.
· Even if Family Pairing is being used, parents should not depend upon any technology to keep their child safe. The good evidence-based peer-reviewed research shows us that parental communication, parental participation, and parental over-watch are the key to keeping our kids “safer” in the online world. Don’t abdicate your responsibility to digitally parent.
Digital Food for Thought
The White Hatter