Privacy and security / September 23, 2020

To TikTok or not to TikTok? Depends on how much you value privacy

Nimmi Kanji

Nimmi Kanji

Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise

20-1298 TELUS Wise TikTok - Image

Charli D’Amelio. Loren Gray. Addison Rae. Never heard of them? Your kids probably have. They are currently TikTok’s biggest “stars,” with a combined 143 million followers and 8.8 billion likes.

If you think that TikTok is just a fun social media fad for kids, think again. The numbers are pretty staggering, and are only growing. Here are some key stats that Influencer Marketing Hub, a leading resource for influencers, agencies and platforms, shared in its article, 50 TikTok Stats That Will Blow Your Mind:

  • TikTok is available in 154 countries and in 39 languages
  • It makes the top 25 apps list in 135 countries
  • Users have installed TikTok more than 1.9 billion times worldwide, and there are 800 million active users worldwide
  • 49% of teenagers claim to use the platform

While wildly popular, the video-sharing, social networking service has been plagued by its share of controversy – especially around privacy.

Privacy woes

TikTok’s privacy woes have been widely reported and analyzed, with a recent article in the Washington Post highlighting several aspects of the privacy controversy, including:

  • Whether or not the Chinese government can access private information from the app (TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance)
  • TikTok gathers a lot of information including which videos you watch, how long you watch them for, as well the contents of private messages you send in the app
  • The app’s privacy policy admits to collecting country location, Internet address and type of device being used
  • TikTok has been called out for some questionable practices including accessing contents of iPhone clipboards every few seconds and bugs that have made personal data vulnerable (both issues have since been addressed)
  • TikTok paid fines of $5.7 million to the Federal Trade Commission for violations of America’s children’s privacy law by (acquired by TikTok in 2017); while parental controls have been enhanced, there are still concerns from children’s advocacy groups.

Can you TikTok safely?

Like anything online, there is a trade-off between privacy, and in this case, addictive entertainment. Privacy expert and former Ontario Privacy Commissioner Dr. Ann Cavoukian provided some great insights about that trade-off to TELUS Wise readers earlier in the year. In a recent Global News article specifically about Tik Tok, Cavoukian asserts that Canada probably won’t ban the app, but suggests it is unknown whether or not (or exactly how) the Chinese government is using data collected by TikTok.

If your kids are adamant about dancing, lip syncing, sharing their creativity or consuming content on TikTok, it is important to be aware of the privacy implications and to take appropriate action to protect your kids.

There are several precautions you can take:

Lock it down

Like most social networking apps, TikTok does offer some privacy options in its settings. You can set an account to private and block your account from being discovered by others. When an account is private, only approved followers can see the content you produce. However, even with a private account, your profile photo, username and bio will still be visible. The default setting for comments, reactions, duets, direct messaging, video download permission and viewing a liked video is “everyone.” But you have the option to change that to “friends” or “no-one.” This Forbes article walks you through the steps and suggests some other great resources regarding TikTok and privacy.

Limit usage

You have some options here. Both iPhone (Screen Time) and Android (Digital Wellbeing) offer visibility into how much time your kids are spending on TikTok in a day or a week. You can set time limits for app use and customize time limits on certain days (less on weekdays, more on weekends, for example). TikTok’s Family Pairing capabilities (read more below) also allow you to manage how much time your child spends using the app.


Participating with your kids when they are using TikTok is the best way to understand the app, monitor their content production and consumption. For younger kids using TikTok, make it a family affair. Create content with them and lead by example. See what they are watching, get curious about why they like it and reinforce rules and limitations. TikTok also recently introduced Family Pairing which allows parents to manage screen time, filter mature content and limit messaging. The TikTok Parental Guide provides additional information on tools and features you can use to create a safe TikTok experience for your kids.

Create an alias

Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler summed it up in his recent article, Is it time to delete TikTok? A guide to the rumors and the real privacy risks. His general privacy rule? “When in doubt, fib.” You don’t necessarily have to share any real personal information on the app. Have fun with it with your kids. Pick “stage” names and create corresponding email addresses. If your kids are actively creating and sharing videos rather than just consuming content on the app, challenge them to see how creative they can get in making videos that don’t show their faces.

TikTok is popular for a reason. It’s fun. It’s frivolous. And there are some really talented people creating really enjoyable content. Like any other social media platform, establish rules and limitations for your family. Be vigilant about privacy and diligent about what you can control. And most importantly, stay curious with your kids and keep the lines of communication open.

Apps & gaming
Privacy & permissions
Kids & tech
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