When the term "TikTok" is mentioned, it's likely that people will think about the mega-popular social media platform than a clock. Needless to say, TikTok has rapidly become arguably the most popular social media platform in a very short amount of time. However, the app has also drawn some serious concerns regarding privacy issues, data breaches, and online safety over inappropriate content.

Following reports confirming China-based TikTok employees have access to Australian users' data supplied through the app and contradicting previous claims that this data was secured safely in the United States and Singapore, there's been increased scrutiny over how TikTok accesses and uses users' data, and how online safety for young children and LGBTQI+ members leaves much to be desired.

In light of these troubling revelations, we're going to dive in-depth into what kind of personal data TikTok stores, how the app is a concern for young children and LGBTQI+ members, and how to stay safe when on the platform.

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What kind of data does TikTok track and store?

TikTok has been accused of "excessive" data harvesting of its users and aggressively going after more information compared to other social media platforms. The app will collect personal data including:

  • Location (GPS)

  • IP address

  • Search history

  • Content of your messages

  • What you are viewing and how long for.

It's also been reported that TikTok has significantly more permissions than it really needs every time it is used. In addition to the aforementioned list of data collected by the app, it can also:

  • Collect user contact lists

  • Access calendars

  • Scan hard drives, including external ones

  • Geolocate devices on an hourly basis.

With so much data being gathered from its users, and the security issues regarding China-based TikTok employees having access to Australian users' data, there are serious concerns that government agencies and/or third parties will exploit this data to spread misinformation.

Young children and parents

TikTok's Terms of Service state that users must be at least 13 years old to sign up for an account, however, it is easy to simply lie and bypass the age gate. Once on the app, young children are vulnerable to things such as:

  • Predators - As TikTok is a platform that encourages performance and showcasing talents, this can make it easy for predators to use flattery as a way to worm into children's lives.

  • Inappropriate content - Due to TikTok's algorithmically generated stream of curated content, this is an area where young children can be exposed to sexual, violent, racist, discriminatory content, as well as unregulated or misinformation, posted to the public feed.

  • Dangerous mental health conversations - TikTok's video feed may also serve up highly personal or sensitive content related to issues such as self-harm and eating disorders, which can be disturbing to users who see them in passing.

  • Cyberbullying and anxiety - Users may get sucked into the vicious cycle of trying to create better content and feeling anxiety when they're not getting the response they want. Furthermore, users may be targeted by cyberbullies and trolls who are lurking on TikTok just to leave negative feedback on users' content.

While TikTok is continually adjusting settings to filter out 'sensitive content' for underage users, this isn't enough of a barrier to prevent young children on the app from being exposed to the aforementioned dangerous content.

LGBTQI+ members

GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy group has issued its second annual Social Media Safety Index and found that TikTok scored below 50% when it comes to LGBTQI+ safety. The report has found that while TikTok has an explicit policy against the harmful anti-LGBTQ microaggressions deadnaming and misgendering, the level of harassment and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric continues to rise. It also found that the platform isn't doing enough to protect the LGBTQI+ community due to its lack of transparency regarding data collection regarding users' sexual orientation and gender identity, and demonetising or removing legitimate LGBTQI+ content.

Staying safe while using TikTok

Cybersecurity experts state that the best way to protect yourself from TikTok's data harvesting practices and online safety issues is to simply delete the app as it is essentially a data harvesting farm masquerading as a social media platform.

If users decide to keep using TikTok, experts found that the app is able to run successfully without any data being gathered. As many social media platforms experience data breaches and third-party sharing, it's important to ensure that your TikTok account is as private and secure as possible you can:

  • Make your TikTok account private. Only adding friends or people you know personally.

  • Don't use TikTok as a platform to have private conversations with your friends.

  • If you are a parent, ensure that if your child is under 13 you are using the separate privacy settings for under 13’s - This setting restricts data gathering and limits the collection of data.

  • Don’t overshare - Keep private any details about yourself - age, full name, or any identifiable locations.

  • Turn off the default setting to ‘suggest your account to others’ and ignore requests for sharing information.

  • Enable 'Restricted Mode' in the app, which limits the appearance of content that may not be appropriate for all audiences.

  • Set data permissions manually via in-app settings and your device's settings, and limit TikTok from accessing anything. Make sure to regularly monitor these permissions regularly as app and device updates can cause permissions access to change.

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Image credit: Diverse Stock Photos at Flickr

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.

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