The mobile video-sharing app TikTok is surging in popularity among South African teens, a new study shows. But TikTok users — many younger than the required age of 13 — should be aware of risks to their privacy, say social media experts.
The “public” default setting allows anyone to view the videos shared by users, each between 15 and 60 seconds. TikTok had about 600 million downloads last year.
In SA, TikTok has an estimated 6 million users, while Instagram and Facebook each have about 9 million users, according to the 2020 edition of the SA Social Media Landscape.
“We have seen more South Africans joining TikTok to either keep themselves entertained or to connect with others. That was, of course, happening before Covid-19, but it has only accelerated since the national lockdown,” said Boniswa Sidwaba, TikTok content operations manager, Africa.
“With the increased usage, it has become even more important for people to know the safety features available on TikTok and to take advantage of them.”
The app made headlines this week when users claimed they had helped to wreck US President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday with false registrations, encouraged by #TikTokGrandma in a video that got more than 700,000 likes.
SA’s biggest annual study on social media trends, released this month by World Wide Worx and Ornico, has found that TikTok’s numbers are rising fast.
Dean McCoubrey, the founder of MySocialLife, a digital life skills programme for schools, said that the app hit the sweet spot for teens.
“TikTok is about sharing your thoughts, your passions, your interests and humour online and everybody makes a comment about it … Teens have almost always loved this,” he said.
The creative content — music, lip-syncing, viral dance trends (#bananadrop) and comedy — comes across as less curated than much on Instagram, which has fewer young fans (aged 16 to 24) than TikTok.
TikTok has become a new hub for escapism and mindless entertainment, attracting fans much like YouTube did when it first exploded, said McCoubrey.
Increasingly, celebrities and brands are moving onto TikTok, where some adults share provocative (often liked) content which can be age-inappropriate and influence kids.
“These are idols or influencers, a bit of a benchmark … Some kids’ self-esteem really starts to erode by feeling they are not enough. I think this is an invisible factor that we need to gain a handle on,” said McCoubrey.
“If being online doesn’t make you feel good, we have got to get our kids to take a break from it. The challenge is that they get these chemical rewards in the pleasure centre of the brain.
“If a child has a private account and has turned off ‘Allow Others To Find Me’, that means that the child has a small ring-fenced community to engage with and then it is really safe.”
- Make sure you’re the right age: 13 years and older. (Tip: parents can simply block it from the child’s phone if needed);
- Reset privacy: TikTok accounts are automatically set to public. Set to private so you need to approve a follower before they can view your videos. You can block or report users;
- Cap your screen time: TikTok has a Screen Time Management function – under the section “Digital Wellbeing”;
- Be thoughtful about your profile: Even with private settings your profile photo, username and bio are available to all TikTok users. (Tip for parents: help teenagers safeguard the amount of personal information shared online); and
- Enable Family Pairing for extra support and safety: parents can set controls including Restricted Mode and Direct Messages.