TikTok safety for schools: K-12 best practices

Social media is a hot topic in the K-12 school system. Now, with the rise of TikTok, educators have an entirely new mess on their hands. With major data privacy and security implications, understanding TikTok is key to protecting your students.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the basics of TikTok safety, how it puts children at risk, and what you can do to safeguard your school district.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a popular social media app that allows users to create, watch, and share short-form videos online. Its China-based parent company, ByteDance, launched the platform in 2016 and quickly amassed a significant following.

However, the app’s global success began in late 2017 after it acquired rival Musical.y and ported its 200 million accounts over to TikTok. Now, with over 4.7 billion downloads worldwide and 150 million American users, the platform’s meteoric rise only continues.

Although people of all ages use the TikTok app, it’s especially popular among tweens and teens. According to Pew Research Center, it’s second only to YouTube, with 67% of adolescents ages 13-17 reportedly having a TikTok account.

How does TikTok work?

The app is divided into two main feeds. The default is called the “For You” page, which uses an algorithm to determine what each TikTok user sees. In other words, it curates videos based on patterns, preferences, and behaviors, thereby personalizing the experience. However, this only works by letting TikTok collect personal information. This is a potential security concern — but more on that later.

The other feed is the “Following” page. As the name implies, it only delivers videos posted by accounts the TikTok user follows.

However, over time, ByteDance has rolled out new features and capabilities. In addition to the For You and Following feeds, users can watch live streams where other accounts broadcast themselves in real-time. Also, users can browse the TikTok Shop, an online marketplace where they can buy and sell products from the same interface.

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Is TikTok safe?

The answer isn’t crystal clear. Although the social media app has introduced new community guidelines, privacy settings, and safety measures over the years, TikTok still has a problematic history.

In 2019, ByteDance agreed to a $5.7 million settlement payment after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleged the TikTok app illegally collected personal information from younger users. The FTC claims the app violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires online services to obtain parental permission before collecting user data of anyone under 13. That same year, TikTok allegedly obtained biometric information, mined sensitive data from drafted videos, and improperly shared user data with third-party companies.

Later, in March 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the United States Congress. He was there to dispel concerns about the app’s ties to the Chinese government, which many critics claim to be a national security threat. Worries have grown so severe that Montana became the first state to enact a total TikTok ban.

Outside the United States, European regulators hit TikTok with a €345 million fine in September 2023, accusing the company of violating strict data privacy laws. ByteDance refuted these claims, arguing Europe’s investigation began months after it had already added stronger parental controls and safety measures.

Despite TikTok’s efforts, the app remains a major privacy and security concern for schools and parents/guardians. Why? Because of several key risk factors:

  • TikTok challenges
  • Inappropriate content
  • Online predation
  • Cybersecurity
  • Mental health

TikTok challenges

In short, a challenge is a type of trend where users post a TikTok video of them participating in the same activity. But, they’re not always fun and games. Although some are silly pranks and dances, other challenges are downright dangerous.

Take the “blackout challenge,” for instance. The goal: Hold your breath long enough to pass out. Unfortunately, in 2021, a 12-year-old in Colorado died after trying the challenge. Other trends involve students vandalizing school property, starting fights, or even threatening violence on campus. Sometimes, they involve reporting a fake school shooting.

Why do kids participate in these dangerous stunts? According to Christine Elgersma, senior editor at Common Sense Media, it’s often about popularity.

“Developmentally, it’s just tapping into this natural tendency of teens, and then amplifies it and spreads it super-fast,” she told Education Week. “There is a peer pressure element combined with wanting to get that attention, either to go viral or to be a part of the cool thing.”

Inappropriate content

Aside from dangerous challenges, there are endless streams of harmful content just a few taps away. For example, a recent study found that nearly 1 in 5 videos on the TikTok app contain misinformation.

More importantly, the app also encourages themes that are much too suggestive for younger users. From overt sexual activity and graphic violence to racist and discriminatory language, a young person could easily access a full spectrum of inappropriate content.

Fortunately, there are special protections for kids 13 and younger. In restricted mode, a child’s account is allowed to watch videos or even post their own, but they can’t save them within the app. Also, other users can’t send them a direct message, as the child’s profile is entirely hidden from public view.

Likewise, in March 2023, TikTok announced it would start limiting screen time for teens under 18 to 60 minutes a day. Anyone older than 13 has to input a passcode to keep using the app, while younger users need a parent or guardian to enter a special code.

Online predators

Like any social media platform with a direct message or commenting feature, there’s always the chance a young person could interact with total strangers. Sadly, according to Bark’s chief parenting officer Titania Jordan, this opens the door for online predators to exploit vulnerable children.

“TikTok is a platform that encourages performance, and many of its users are excited to showcase their talents,” she told Parents.com. “This can make it easy for predators to use flattery and compliments as a way into kids’ lives, making them feel special while putting them at ease.”

In fact, per a BBC investigation, researchers collected hundreds of sexual comments posted on videos uploaded by teenagers and children. Although TikTok’s community guidelines forbid users from using public posts or private messages to harass underage users, the app sometimes fails to remove comments promptly.

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TikTok’s shady data collection practices are well-documented. However, this isn’t the only risk threatening the exposure of sensitive information. Students and staff members who sign up for a TikTok account using their school-provided email address are putting their entire district in danger.

For example, Clark County School District (CCSD) experienced a devastating data breach in 2023. A hacker group called “SingularityMD” leaked over 200,000 students’ personal information online. Turns out, the cybercriminals obtained a student’s birthdate from social media and the email address they used to create their TikTok profile, which was attached to their school ID.

Likewise, hackers often use TikTok to scam unsuspecting kids with social engineering tactics. They may promise users they’ll boost their followers or likes if they pay a small fee. Others try to entice children into clicking links or downloading attachments containing malware — a classic example of phishing.

Mental health

Not unlike Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, excessive TikTok use can alter a student’s mental health. Research shows that social media in general can negatively affect emotional wellness. Another recent survey suggests that over 50% of people ages 14-24 have either deleted or considered deleting their social media accounts due to distressing, harmful content.

It’s often said comparison is the thief of joy — and unfortunately, younger users are especially susceptible. Teens frequently compare themselves to peers, using their social media activity as a barometer for popularity.

Additionally, TikTok use may lead to cyberbullying and trolling. Videos that aren’t funny or successful provide fodder to bullies, who may post mean comments or ridiculing responses. According to a 2022 study, kids on YouTube are the most likely to be cyberbullied at 79%, followed by Snapchat at 69%, TikTok comes in at 64%, and Facebook at 49%.

TikTok safety tips and tricks

Despite its faults, it’s not realistic to think students will stop using TikTok anytime soon. So, here are some best practices you can share with students, parents, and staff members:

  • Use restricted mode: TikTok’s built-in security measures can make the experience more appropriate for younger users. Restricted mode limits content that isn’t suitable for everyone, such as those with complex themes or adult language.
  • Communicate policies to students: Make them well aware that actions have consequences. Clearly articulate your conduct policies so students understand what might happen if they engage in dangerous social media challenges on school grounds.
  • Provide online safety training: Help kids understand the dangers of excessive social media use through digital wellness programs and lesson plans. Teach them how to change their privacy settings in the app to take control of their user data.
  • Monitor activity: If you don’t want students using school accounts for TikTok, try using a tool like Cloud Monitor. With our platform, you can keep tabs on your Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 environments. Plus, it’ll automatically notify you of dangerous activity, such as when students are accessing unauthorized apps like TikTok.
  • Block it entirely: Of course, you can also use solutions like ManagedMethods’ Content Filter tool to block users from accessing TikTok in the first place. As a browser-based solution, you can prevent kids from using the app on school devices, not to mention any other malicious or harmful content online.

TikTok may be the latest social media platform to challenge K-12 cyber safety and security, but it won’t be the last. Start protecting your school district and keep children safe with the power of our content monitoring and filtering solutions.

Ready to give it a spin? Request your free demo of Cloud Monitor and Content Filter today.

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