Editorial: The risks of social media app TikTok

The headline of a cover story that ran more than a decade ago in our now-defunct sister paper, The North Shore Sun, read: “Myspace is a scary place.” The story detailed various ways teenagers could land in troubling situations on the social media site and offered insight for parents.

Nowadays, teenagers would view Myspace like the rotary phone. The site quickly fell behind as Facebook became popular. And now even Facebook has dimmed in popularity among the youth.

Parents are left in a constant uphill battle to stay current with the next big social media site or app that teenagers gravitate toward that could expose them to troubling material.

Recent reports out of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District about incidents where students used language and acts associated with anti-Semitism have been linked partly to an app called TikTok, according to a letter high school principal Shawn Petretti sent to parents. Mr. Petretti said in the letter that TikTok is “littered with videos containing messages of pro-Nazism as well as anti-Semitism.”

As with any social media app, TikTok wasn’t designed for nefarious purposes. It’s a platform to share short videos that gained wide popularity in the U.S. in 2018. This past summer, the company that created TikTok bought Musical.ly, another short video platform, and merged the two, expanding its popularity even more. One recent headline went so far as to describe TikTok as “the world’s most valuable startup that you’ve never heard of.”

When a social media app grows so fast, it can often lag behind in filtering out the dangerous questionable material that inevitably floods in. TikTok is particularly popular among teens in the middle-school age range. Reports have emerged of online predators using the app.

So what are parents to do?

It always starts with communication. Parents of young teens need to be aware of what new apps their kids are exploring and understand the potential risks. Long gone are the days of simply keeping your kids away from R-rated movies.

Common Sense, an internet watchdog site, recommends the TikTok app for kids 16 or older due to privacy issues and mature content. The app itself lists a minimum age requirement of 13.

If younger children wish to use the app, parents should own the account and monitor what their children browse and share, Common Sense recommends. There are privacy settings that parents should check, but there are no specific parental controls.

“Other than blocked search terms, there’s no way to filter out content on TikTok, so kids using the app on their own might come across age-inappropriate videos,” Common Sense says.

And it’s also possible to watch TikTok without even creating an account.

TikTok can be a fun way to create and share harmless music videos. But its darker side is one parents need to remain aware of before kids are onto the next new social media app.

Photo caption: Mattituck school officials said students using the TikTok app have viewed videos containing messages of pro-Nazism as well as anti-Semitism. (Kate Nalepinski photo)