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TikTok VS Parents battlefield: how the most addictive app deals with children’s privacy

This year’s State of Mobile report by App Annie, an internet analytics company, declared that

TikTok is now officially more addictive than YouTube. Report reveals that average American spends almost 24.5 hours in TikTok per month and monthly engagement is growing non-stop, faster than Facebook, Instagram, or any other messaging app.

Data provided by App Annie in State of Mobile 2021 report

TikTok is growing at an enormous speed since 2020

The algorithm behind the product makes TikTok the most addictive application. In a never-ending feed app provides video after video, completely fixing the attention of the user. Just look around yourself in the subway or city bus: what are the passengers doing? The most probable answer: scrolling the TikTok's feed to watch yet another video. Isn’t it?

7-year-old blogger: I’m addicted to TikTok!

As we witness such an astonishing growth, the question of children’s safety arises. According to reports, TikTok has 18 million users who are 14 and younger. And this number is increasing rapidly.

Series of lawsuits for violating children’s privacy

Company’s international problems around child privacy have started earlier. For this reason, TikTok has been under an investigation in the UK since 2019, following a lawsuit on the same problem in France in 2020. Later, Australian intelligence services called the app a security threat.

Another huge scandal happened in the US, where Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok $5.7 million for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The app failed to collect parental consent before taking the personal data of children under the age of 13.

A range of fines continued with South Korean’s claim to fine TikTok over the children's data privacy issues. Korea Communications Commission stated that video sharing app was collecting information of users under 14 years old without the consent of parents.

Reports on lawsuits and fines imposed on TikTok by BBC, TechCrunch, DutchNews, NBC News

In spring of 2020, the Dutch data protection authorities initiated an investigation into TikTok’s child privacy regulations. The matter of the probe again touched on parental consent to collect minors’ data.

Several months later, a 12-year-old girl in UK reached out to the court blaming TikTok in illegal use of children's data. The case got support from Anne Longfield, the children's commissioner for England.

Twit by children's commissioner for England on TikTok violations of children’s privacy

Scandals around TikTok continued in April 2021 in Netherlands, even after the company improved the app’s system, officially stating that users must be at least 13 years old to sign up. Despite new terms of service, young TikTokers still could get an account.

First, Dutch foundation SOMI sued TikTok for failing to protect the safety of European children and breaking privacy laws. More than 60,000 of Dutch parents supported the organization claiming for 1.4 billion euros fine.

Later on, Consumentenbond, a Dutch consumer association, and the Take Back Your Privacy Foundation requested TikTok to pay all the children who use the platform 1,000 euros for the damage caused to their privacy, illegal collection and trade of the children’s information. If so, the total sum of money would reach 1.5 billion euros. Organizations claimed that the data from the children gave company a chance to make target advertising for the young audience, which was called by them a “pure exploitation”. As Consumentenbond director Sandra Molenaar said, there are no guarantees for privacy or safe storage of data.

In summer this year, the Dutch Data Protection Authority had imposed 725,000 euros fine on the company mainly for the lack of data transparency. Investigation has revealed that the notice appearing on the screen of Dutch users while installing the app was in English and thus not understood by some users.

Most of the lawsuit cases above illustrates several major problems around TikTok’s children privacy. First, it’s the difficulty with verifying the age of app users. Second, the app is able to collect data from youngsters that is not permitted to collect. And the third controversial issue is how TikTok uses and stores the data it gets. The US is concerned with the possibility of the data gathered going to China, while users in Europe are more worried about data sent to the US since America is no longer considered a “trusted partner” in the EU in terms of internet privacy.

TikTok’s measures to protect teenage users

As company’s representatives mentioned in one of the official statements, “Privacy and safety are top priorities for TikTok and we have robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular. We believe the claims lack merit and intend to vigorously defend the action.”

The words are the words, but what is done by TikTok to protect young users in reality?

In November 2020, TikTok introduced Family Pairing feature which improved parental control of users before 13 in terms of search, comments and privacy of children. From then on, parents would decide whether to make their child’s account private or public, choose who can comment on the videos and even switch off TikTok’s search feature. Parents also were able to link their personal account to their children’s to see the child’s actions in the app.

Family Pairing feature’s screenshot

In winter this year, TikTok updated the privacy settings, this time for all the users under 18. Accounts of users aged from 13 to 15 became private and no longer had an option to suggest an account to others. In terms of comments, teens could choose between “friends” or “no one”, while “everyone” option was removed. For users aged from 16 to 17, the setting for Duet and Stitch was set to “friends”.

Besides, the controversial app started giving some positive impact across the young users, in order to improve its image.

For instance, in Philippines Tiktok has partnered with human rights organization International Justice Mission to fight online sexual exploitation. Together they launched a campaign called #Report2Protect to increase awareness and reporting of online sexual exploitation of children. Local short video stars joined the campaign.

The campaign by TikTok and Justice Mission in Philippines

Meanwhile, what is happening in China in TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and Chinese version of the app called Douyin?

Chinese TikTok foster and encourage the creation of high-quality content by young users through implementing a special program for youngsters.

Cao Yu, who is a person in charge of Douyin Teen Features Model, said that the app originally launched a new model to respond to the needs of society and restrict the behavior of minors in order to provide privacy and safety. However, with more restrictions coming, company understood they have to find a positive direction and create a space for learning. Cao Yu explained that teens can get more content through the short videos and find the content they are interested in. As he mentioned, restrictions don’t serve to damage young users' experience, but to improve its quality.

Cao Wu introduces Douyin Teen Features Model

The plans of Douyin to create better content for teens have already kicked in. In the end of July, Douyin launched a series of live streaming lectures on healthy and safe living during summer vacation. The activity invited a number of education experts, police, doctors, lawyers and other professionals, who is going to popularize safety knowledge and help children enhance safety awareness.

As a popular platform for teenagers, Douyin hopes to take advantage of its unique features and work with parents, schools and all sectors of society to contribute to children’s prosperity, healthy and safe life.

Live streaming lectures for teens in summer

This is how the models of operation of TikTok and its Chinese version differs for now. There are certainly some points TikTok needs to learn and probably adopt from Douyin especially in terms of creating more high quality and educational content. Another question is how to implement and further improve children’s data privacy taking into considerations different data collection system and approaches between China, the US, Europe and other parts of Asia.

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