Better four years too late than never, right?
But we mustn't grumble. There is reason to rejoice - or at least be somewhat relieved - that video-sharing megaplatform TikTok has introduced much-needed privacy changes for under-age users.
And that’s a major slice of its demographic. The fastest-growing social media app on the planet, it’s been estimated that TikTok has roughly the same number of teen users as adult users among its 800-million-strong global audience.
The company describes its mission as “to capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments, directly from the mobile phone. TikTok enables everyone to be a creator, and encourages users to share their passion and creative expression through their videos.”
But first and foremost, of course, TikTok is about profitability. With a current net worth of around $50 billion, that's a mission the app has well and truly fulfilled.
The problem with TikTok
Since its launch in 2017, the app has been repeatedly attacked by cyber experts and child advocates for its failure to protect kids’ privacy. Critics have zeroed in on the default “public” setting for accounts, charging that it has created an open door for paedophiles and child predators.
The mechanics of the application, together with the operation of its recommendation algorithms, led to many adults with pedophile tendencies constantly receiving recommendations for highly sexualised videos of minors.
Explains digital transformation expert Enrique Dans, “The mechanics of the application, together with the operation of its recommendation algorithms, led to many adults with pedophile tendencies constantly receiving recommendations for highly sexualized videos of minors.
“This created a feedback loop in which children realized that their more explicit videos garnered the highest success metrics.”
In the changes announced this week, that feature has been reversed. Now, all accounts registered for 13-15 year olds will be default set to private. That means videos that kids upload can’t be downloaded by strangers, but only by friends.
In this age group, the “Everyone” comment setting will be disabled, and only friends will be permitted to comment on videos.
The setting “Suggest your account to others” - once active by default - will now be turned off by default for younger teens, while third parties will be prevented from accessing duets and similar functions.
Access to "Dueting" - a common tactic for cyberbullies - will also be blocked for under-16s.
Older teens will also get some beefed up protection. Under the updates, “third parties” - aka strangers - will also be barred from automatically downloading videos from 16- to 17-year-olds, unless they’ve been authorised.
What do the experts say about the changes?
"The update to TikTok's privacy protection for teens is a welcome change to the platform," says Family Zone cyber expert and psychologist Jordan Foster, managing director of Australia's leading digital wellbeing provider, ySafe. "These changes will have a significant impact on the wellbeing of young teens, and their vulnerability on the platform."
Yes, these protections have been a long time coming. But Foster argues there's a bigger problem at issue: namely "that all social media platforms operate in a grossly undergregulated ecosystem. While they are not completely unaccountable for the operations and functionality of their platforms, the power to hold platforms accountable and enforce an industry standard has a very long way to go globally.
"TikTok's step in a positive direction should be encouraged by us as consumers, in the hope that all social media platforms move in the same direction and offer young people protections where they otherwise have very few.
So is TikTok safe for my child now?
Let’s put it this way: it’s less UNsafe.
As welcome as these changes are, TikTok still presents major risks for under-age users. Most obviously, when setting up an account, kids can simply misrepresent their age.
For most children, it would be an easy matter to manipulate their own privacy settings - and simply change their default settings to allow public viewing, commenting and suggesting.
If your child is on TikTok, you need to be aware that parental oversight, regular conversations - and limit-setting via parental controls - remain essential. Learn your child's account password, and check in on their privacy settings on a regular basis.
And remember: it's not called snooping, it's called parenting.
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