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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

On Tuesday, President Biden signed a law that would require ByteDance, a Chinese company, to sell TikTok within the next year or face a ban in the U.S. TikTok has said that it will fight the law in court, likely with support from the ACLU and other American free speech and internet freedom organizations.

I have stayed out of this debate for two reasons. One is because I have a conflict of interest. TikTok is one of several companies that provide financial support to ConnectSafely, the nonprofit internet safety organization that I co-founded. Another is because I am not an expert on U.S.-China relations and all of its complexities. What I can say is that about 170 million Americans, more than half the U.S. population, use TikTok and will be affected if the app is banned. I suspect that most of the 170 million users are primarily consumers of TikTok’s short videos, but a substantial number are creators, including many who make all or part of their living through the service either through revenue shares from advertising on the service, tips from other users, affiliate marketing or by using the service to promote their business.

Although I don’t have the expertise to comment on the issue of whether their Chinese ownership may have a detrimental impact on Americans, I do know quite a bit about the company’s safety policies and can attest that they, at the very least, are keeping up with their competitors when it comes to protecting teenage users.

We read a lot about the negatives when it comes to TikTok and other social media companies, but TikTok, like most of their competitors, has policies in place to protect younger users. There are risks associated with almost everything we do, but there are safeguards in place.

Age-based protections

TikTok requires a minimum age of 13 in the U.S., but there are undoubtedly younger children either signing in with their parent’s account or misrepresenting their age (often with their parent’s knowledge and permission) to set up their own accounts, which is a practice that ConnectSafely strongly discourages.

The service has age-based protections. As I mentioned, children under 13 are not allowed on TikTok, although TIkTok does have an “under 13 experience” that is highly restrictive. Teens under 15 are not allowed to use direct messaging, which can be a vector for abuse, and their accounts are private by default. Their videos and information are not eligible to be included in the “For You” feed, which is how TikTok recommends videos for others to watch. Younger teens are not allowed to download videos, and only friends can comment on the videos they post. TikTok users of any age are not allowed to “duet” or “stitch” videos from younger teens. Duet allows users to create a side-by-side video with another user’s video. Stitch lets users include clips of videos from other users as part of their videos.

Even 16- and 17-year-olds have some restrictions, such as not being allowed to live broadcast or accept virtual gifts, which are sometimes used by sexual predators as part of the grooming process. Direct messaging and video downloads are off by default (but can be turned on) for 16- and 17-year-olds, and all minors have a 60-minute daily time limit as well as disabled late-night notifications.

TikTok also offers a “Family Pairing” option that allows parents of teenage users to place additional restrictions on their teen’s account, such as further limiting their screen time on the app, muting their teen’s push notifications during specific times, filtering hashtags and keywords associated with videos they don’t want their teens to view and restricting their teen’s ability to search for content. Parents whose teens are enrolled in Family Pairing can also set their teen’s account to private, restrict who, if anyone, can send direct messages for teens over 16, decide who can see their teen’s liked videos and restrict who can comment on their teen’s videos.

Family Pairing is voluntary. Teens and parents must agree to turn it on. I strongly recommend it for younger teens, especially when they first start using the service and think it’s very reasonable for parents to insist on it when their younger teens first start using the service. As teens mature and show signs of responsible online use, it might make sense for parents to loosen the reins and give their teens more responsibility over their own safety, just as parents often do with other aspects of life, such as driving or being out with friends at night.

Regardless of which services your child uses, parents need to regularly speak with their teens and children about the safe and responsible use of these technologies and ensure that their children are being honest about their age so that they benefit from age-based protections.

Age assurance

Age-based protections only work if the user is honest about their age. Right now, none of the popular social media services have iron-clad ways to verify the age of their users. There are ways to achieve that, but many of them present privacy challenges, such as the use of birth records, social security information or school data. Age assurance is a major topic of conversation within the online safety community and was even the theme of the 2022 Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) annual conference, where FOSI CEO Stephen Balkam pointed out that “Age assurance has long been a challenging area for the technology industry, as certain methods may also require the collection of more user data.”

In 2008, I served on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, run out of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center to, among other things, study whether there was a practical way for social media companies to determine the age of its users and at the time, our expert panel wasn’t able to find age verification methods that also protect children’s privacy and security. Since then there have been some promising technologies, including biometric-based age estimation tools, but it remains a controversial and difficult problem to solve.

I’m not taking a position on whether ByteDance should be forced to sell TikTok, but I feel very strongly that TikTok should be allowed to continue to operate in the U.S. not for the sake of its owners or investors but for the millions of Americans who enjoy using it, learn from it and make all or part of their living from it. If it is sold, I worry whether the new owners will be as proactive and careful as TikTok’s current management when it comes to protecting teenage users. No social media service is perfect. They can all use some additional safeguards, but TikTok has reasonable safeguards that should remain in place regardless of who owns the company.

ConnectSafely has a Parents Guide to TikTok as well as a Senior’s Guide (yes, there are plenty of older users on the service) at

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