The Dangers of TikTok for Children

A large number of children have spent months of the pandemic being home-schooled and over 97% of young people were on the internet for the majority of the day. This didn’t stop after school hours. And what else is there to do during these lockdowns, other than to allow children to play on their tablets, phones, and computers. Under normal circumstances, such usage is frowned upon and it does have negative psychological effects. However, young people need access to their friends somehow, and if that means playing minecraft on a headset, as my Mum would say; “let them on, it does no harm”

However, does it really do no harm? There have been numerous studies and reports over the years into the effects of violent video games on young children and teenagers. It’s thought that such heavy usage may cause social isolation, yet rarely do parents object to the latest app. Possibly, this may be a generational thing. ‘Millennial parents’ (the generation who grew up partially with the internet) and Gen-Z (the generation who grew up entirely with the internet) are becoming the main body of parents now. Does this change the outlook for children and technology?

In the last two years, I have become addicted to TikTok, I’m not going to deny it nor am I ashamed of it. It has become an app with a large amount of creative content that spans so many different genres. Musicians are being “found” through viral 30 second clips of their new songs. Small businesses can promote their products and access a wider forum of people, and artists can express their passions by creating viral paintings or make up compilations. It can be said that the young people who create content on this app are from the “woke” generation. I know it’s a term criticised by most, but what I appreciate is their overall attitude towards hate, racism, and homophobia. In this way, they are highlighting key issues affecting our society in the here and now. However, anything on the internet can be dangerous. There is no way that any form of social media is not dangerous in some way.

TikTok was first known as Musical.ly, which I remember well, yet I never had any great interest in it. It ran parallel with the Youtuber and Vine eras, also extremely popular. In 2016, the Chinese company ByteDance bought the app and merged it with “Dauyin” to create TikTok. I think back to the first time I learnt about the kind of app it was and thinking “it’s for kids”, which it always seemed to be – at the start anyway. This view is criticised by older creators who say that it was never actually a children’s app, it was just heavily used by a younger generation when it first arrived in the western world. The latest statistics from January 2021 state that there are 689 million users of the app, but this success has not come without controversy.
The most well known controversy could possibly be the issue of data security, with a fear of backdoors, hacking, facial recognition, location tracking, spyware, and other personally invasive technologies. It was actually banned in India seemingly for political and security reasons. While courting India as a security partner, then-President Donald Trump threatened to do the same as part of his anti-China foreign policy. Maybe, it was more a national security, than a data security issue.

Going viral on TikTok seems to be relatively easy, once you strike gold with a great video. It can be funny, elaborate, a dance, or you could start a new trend. I have often come across videos where the person may be doing absolutely nothing at all, yet gain thousands or even millions of likes and shares.

The “Queen of TikTok” (Charli D’Amelio) has around 106 million followers on TikTok. Her career really began with creating dance routines that could be shared and re-shared by her followers, who would also dance the routines themselves. It became such a sensation that TikTok dancers were soon everywhere. I’ve been teaching children for the past five years, and it came to the point that I noticed their worlds revolved around these moves, constantly doing them, constantly making videos with their friends or making ‘inside-jokes’ about the videos. I was out of the loop and needed to check it out.

At first it was harmless, well so I thought, and then it became really clear to me this was more than parents bargained for.

The biggest issue on the app, in my opinion, is “Stranger Danger”. This has always been a thing, even from the time of MySpace and Bebo, but now everything is just more accessible. Predators can use the “duet” function to create a video with other, possibly younger creators. You can also livestream on TikTok and predators can join these streams with young audiences. There have been cases where these predators have been caught and banned from the app, but the issue is how do you truly ban someone from social media? Right now you can’t, unless there is a criminal action. In this way, children are unaware of and unprotected from the dangers. There are options, where you can make your profile private, for example, yet this is down to parents to monitor. As someone who was a rebellious teenager myself, I know that it becomes harder for parents to monitor this activity as kids get older.

Another stand out issue that often crosses my mind while scrolling through TikTok is the vast array of content. There are videos which are suitable for me and my age group, but certainly not for adolescents, and I worry about the detrimental effects this could have on a young person, who has no sense of the outside world yet. Some videos highlight sensitive issues such as mental illness, self harm, pornography, and drugs. Again, these are issues that can be appropriate to engage with and discuss, but not for younger audiences.

Body image on social media is fake, we know this. We’re also aware of the crazy pressures facing women and men to meet these fake beauty standards. Yet, even I have been sucked into the world of #whatieatinaday or #caloriecounting. Everyone has a right to be on a fitness journey and if they find documenting that online helpful, then more power to them. However, I can imagine that for young people, especially young girls, where eating disorders affect so many, this can lead to poor body image and obsession with diet cultures from a young age. In saying that, there are numerous creators whose content is to promote all bodies and to love your body, but this then comes with scrutiny and internet trolls who raid the comments with hurtful attacks. There is no win-win situation here. This is the internet, and trolls will always and forever more be present.

I am old enough to see that and have enough life experience to understand what is reality versus the internet. However, I also hold the advantage of not growing up entirely with social media, phones, and technology: I know how to live without it. I was a teenager when I was first introduced to Facebook, and it wasn’t until I was in my first year of college that I first started using social media to its full potential and had a phone to do it on. Can we really criticise children and young people who know nothing else but the internet? Can we really take it all away from them? That would prove nothing. It’s part of their culture, but what we need to be aware of is that even though they may be tech savvy, they are not emotionally or mentally ready for this kind of intrusive experience in their lives without parental supervision.

About the author

KathyAnn Murphy

KathyAnn is a playwright, theatre and film designer and director from Co. Wicklow. She holds an MA in Theatre Practise and a BA in Design for Stage and Screen. She is a third level tutor, drama teacher and is currently studying a Diploma in Irish Studies. KathyAnn has a great interest in the arts, social justice, history and music.

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