Lessons from the TikTok scandal


The new app craze TikTok, created by the Chinese company ByteDance, has swept over our generation and is continuing to do so every day. With over 500 million users worldwide, the social media platform has been increasing in popularity since its merge with Musical.ly in August of 2018. The app allows users to create short videos that they can then share with their friends and followers. Many of the videos created consist of lip-syncing and dancing to popular songs. Along with thousands of schools across the country, this platform has been highly accepted by our student body. You will often find your peers making TikToks in the Student Center during their free periods or while out on the Quad with their friends. “I think TikTok is fun because it gives me a chance to bond with my friends over learning dances,” Lauren Yingling ’21 said.

Many teenagers would agree with Yingling and might even say that TikTok is a whole new way that one can express themselves. Although this all may be true, TikTok is currently under a lot of pressure from US authorities for not complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Passed by Congress in 1998, this act was put in place to make sure parents were in control of the personal information that their children were putting online. The law requires the app to outline a clear privacy policy and force underage users to acquire parental consent. 

Unfortunately, this past year, TikTok failed to comply with this act and continued to illicitly collect data from children under the age of 13 even when the company knew that the age group was using the app. The platform asked for information including first and last names as well as email addresses and phone numbers from users of all ages. Because of this, ByteDance has agreed to pay the US authorities a $5.7 million fine for illegally collecting data on children without parental consent. The Federal Trade Commission stated that this fine has been the largest one imposed to date. TikTok now asks for a user’s birthday before proceeding to ask for more personal information and allowing one to make an account. Children under the age of 13 are no longer allowed to create or post videos. Understanding that this age group makes up a large part of their user demographic, they hope to make a separate app experience for younger children.

Along with the allegations against the company for data collection, TikTok has also been criticized for its popularity among online sexual predators, according to BBC News. Although this can be said about any social media platform including Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, TikTok’s fundamental structure further escalates this issue. An algorithm is used to create a “For You” page based off of videos that a given user has liked before. If a child likes a predatory video, thousands more similar videos will show up on their apps, allowing predators to have more access to more users.

Collecting personal data off of an app or social media platform is not something that is new or unheard of. In fact, it happens all the time and we are usually clueless about it. “In the digital age, nearly our entire lives are in our phones,” says Instructor of English Larissa Snyder. “They ping our locations, store data, collect usage patterns. One of my concerns with social media usage is that those platforms are constantly collecting that data from devices.” 

I hope that our generation will become more aware of how much of our information may be used and exploited. Most of the time, when faced with terms of agreements, us users skip reading what we are actually agreeing to and just click or tap “yes.” Considering this information, I think it is important to understand and actually read what we are agreeing to. Social media, just like everything else, has its positives and negatives, but it is up to you to be aware of both.