Is TikTok safe to use? Concerns raised about harmful content and user data

    (Loic Vanance/AFP via Getty Images)

(Loic Vanance/AFP via Getty Images)

While social networks like Facebook and Twitter stagnate, TikTok is growing rapidly. With such growth comes a lot of attention, and TikTok now faces scrutiny in a number of areas, from its algorithmic distribution of harmful content to the way it handles user data.

The United States has already banned the viral video app on government devices in more than 20 states due to spying allegations stemming from its Chinese ownership. Universities in Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas have followed suit by restricting student access to the app over campus Wi-Fi networks.

While TikTok narrowly avoided an outright ban under former US President Donald Trump, it faces mounting pressure to prove its security credentials, with specific fears over Chinese government access to user data. , a problem that does not affect comparable Western social networks. It also faces the same content cleanup challenges as other platforms, where millions of users can instantly post videos and moderators struggle to keep up.

Should you quit TikTok or stop your kids from using it? Below, we describe the arguments so that you can make your own decision.

Is TikTok harmful?

The case against TikTok can be broadly divided into two categories: harmful content and privacy concerns due to its Chinese ownership.

For the former, there are good reasons to be alarmed. The Center to Counter Digital Hate found that TikTok will show children harmful content as soon as they show interest in related topics.

Its researchers generated accounts in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, on behalf of fictitious 13-year-old boys. They liked and interacted with videos related to mental health and body image, to assess how this would affect the content displayed in the app’s For You feed.

Accounts were shown self-harm or disordered eating content every 206 seconds on average, with more extreme content shown to accounts intended to represent vulnerable youth, with references to weight loss in their usernames.

TikTok has also been shown to be a hive of misinformation. In September 2022, Newsguard found that when searching for “2022 election,” “mRNA vaccine,” and “Uvalde tx conspiracy,” 20 percent of TikTok posts contained false or misleading information. Newsguard is a service that rates news and information websites based on their trustworthiness.

Chinese property concerns are the big picture. Governments, including the United States, where a campaign to ban TikTok is accelerating, are concerned that it is considered a national security risk because it is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.

Trump wants to ban TikTok (Lionel Bonaventure and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump wants to ban TikTok (Lionel Bonaventure and Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

“Clearly, there is bipartisan support to do something about TikTok, and the continued reports of harmful content and misinformation being given to users, particularly young people, will only add fuel to the fire,” says principal analyst at TikTok. Insider Intelligence, Jasmine Enberg.

A Forbes report claimed that ByteDance planned to “monitor the personal location of some specific US citizens.” TikTok denied the claims made in the article.

An article by cybersecurity firm Internet 2.0 claims that the TikTok app uses “excessive” data collection, collecting information about the user’s location, the content of direct messages and more, and stores it, in part, on servers in mainland china.

TikTok admitted in November that Chinese staff can and do access user data. But a spokesperson reiterated: “We have never provided any data to the Chinese government.

“We believe in the importance of storing European user data in Europe; keeping data flows out of the region to a minimum,” they said.

Where the two concerns, harmful content and Chinese ownership, come together is whether the Chinese government has any say in how algorithms display content. Could you put pressure on ByteDance to spread propaganda or content harmful to British teenagers? It’s not entirely far-fetched, given what we know about Russian troll farms spreading disinformation in the West and the alarming fact that seven per cent of UK adults now get their news from TikTok.

Is the criticism fair? Is TikTok safe?

These are serious points worth noting, but it’s worth noting how many of these security concerns apply to other companies as well.

If you side with US politicians who seek to ban TikTok and effectively kicked Huawei out of the US in 2019, you should probably avoid a host of other brands as well. These include Honor, Xiaomi, OnePlus, OPPO, Lenovo, Realme, and ZTE, among others. They are all Chinese.

As for harmful content, it’s not like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter haven’t had their fair share of content scandals where fake news, dangerous misinformation, and scams spread freely with devastating real-world consequences. Social media algorithms value attention and engagement above all else, and that leads to a dark place.

TikTok seems to get some special attention due to its Chinese ownership, which can seem somewhat Sinophobic. If you’re willing to dismiss the idea that the Chinese government is hovering over the app 24/7, TikTok starts to feel like just another social network.

In October, even GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said he wouldn’t worry about his own children using TikTok.

But his follow-up was just as important. He said he would “talk to my son about how he thinks about his personal data on his device.” That’s useful advice whether it’s about TikTok or any other part of the social web.

Sir Jeremy Fleming (Joe Giddens / Pennsylvania)

Sir Jeremy Fleming (Joe Giddens / Pennsylvania)

How to make TikTok safer for your kids

For all its problems, the next online safety bill is at least taking the issue of harmful content seriously. If the legislation passes, it requires social media companies to actively search for illegal content, rather than relying on a reporting system to uncover it. However, provisions for “legal but harmful” content, including some self-harm related videos, have been removed.

But what about the here and now? Blocking your kids from using TikTok is not a problem-free solution. If all your friends are using the platform, after all, you are making their social life more difficult. So what can you do to make it as safe as possible?

One tip is to make sure they are registered with the correct date of birth on the application. This will not allow children under 13 to register, and should not allow them to circumvent that restriction: after all, it is there for a reason.

But there is another reason to be honest with the ages. Accounts for people ages 13-15 are set to “private” by default, which means that no one else can see your posted content. And even if these accounts go public, their content won’t be shared in the For You feed.

Direct messaging is disabled for those under 16, and those under 18 cannot live stream or receive virtual gifts, which constitute the TikTok tip economy.

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