TikTok, a mobile app that allows users to put sound bites, songs, and effects over 15-second video clips, has more users than Twitter or Snapchat and just reached a landmark of 1 billion downloads. Vox reports, however, that this platform that specializes in silly antics and memes has a darker side that poses an unprecedented threat to underage privacy.
TikTok and its internal messaging system have become what a spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children calls a “hunting ground” for child predators. Though TikTok doesn’t technically allow kids under the age of thirteen on the app, its easy enough for young children to get access to the site. This violates the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998, which prohibits companies from collecting their information of children under 13 without parental permission.
“The operators of Musical.ly — now known as TikTok — knew many children were using the app, but they still failed to seek parental consent before collecting names, email addresses, and other personal information from users under the age of 13,” FTC Chair Joe Simons wrote in a statement. “This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law.”
Thanks to such reckless unconcern regarding the activity of young minors on the app, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, was ordered by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pay a $5.7 billion fine, the largest civil penalty relating to child privacy that the FTC has ever commissioned. The FTC claims that TikTok has been well aware of the fact that children under thirteen are using the app, and their presence there gives TikTok access to their first and last names, phone numbers, email addresses, biographies, and profile pictures.
Data privacy, however, is not the most urgent concern. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the UK’s largest charity group, released a survey of 40,000 students who use the app. It found that 25 percent of children had connected with a stranger on TikTok, and one in 20 children were asked by these strangers on TikTok to strip during live streams.
Using the internet as a platform to locate victims is not a new concept for abusers. AOL chatrooms in the 2000s were notorious for providing a space in which strangers could virtually connect with minors. TikTok, however, is much more accessible, private, and allows abusers to find potential victims that live within a 50-mile radius.