TikTok has replaced local malls as the place where young people hang out for entertainment. Unlike the mall, young people on TikTok can interact with millions of other people and ideas from around the world. This exposure can be an enriching experience — however, leaving young people unsupervised on TikTok can also result in them consuming hours of information that is false, harmful, or hateful.
In 2021, the National Education Association wrote a letter to tech companies complaining about the amount of misinformation and unsafe trends on TikTok and other social media sites. The group asked the companies to stop promoting viral challenges and misinformation. The letter came after several injuries, deaths, and bullying stemming from videos online.
Parents, it’s important to be well-informed of the content on TikTok, to limit or monitor your child’s TikTok use. If your child is repeating misinformation they learned online or has participated in a dangerous TikTok challenge, here’s how to address it.
What Are Some Harmful Ideas on TikTok?
The following are only a few of the harmful ideas and conspiracy theories that can be found on TikTok. In addition to the types of videos listed below, there are other videos that encourage hate speech or violence toward others. Sometimes, these videos can appear in your child’s home feed, even though they haven’t searched for it. That’s why it’s important to monitor your child’s TikTok use.
Misogyny: These videos are meant to shame women and girls for their physical appearance or accomplishments. Some videos advocate for violence toward females. This type of video became so commonplace on TikTok that the app had to specifically ban it from the site. Just because it’s been banned doesn’t mean that it’s completely disappeared. Andrew Tate, a self-proclaimed misogynist, was banned from TikTok in 2022 for his videos advocating violence against and dominance over women. His videos are designed to attract young men and boys to his ideas. Although he has been banned from TikTok, his followers still circulate his videos on social media.
What I Eat in a Day videos: Many of these videos promote unhealthy diet trends for the sake of being thin. One such video showed a young woman who wanted to lose weight for a spring break trip. She purchased a liquid meal replacement supplement and had a dropper full of the liquid along with some juice as a meal.
Helen Keller: Conspiracy theories surfaced in 2022 on TikTok about the deaf-blind author and disability rights activist. The conspiracy theories, stoked mainly by high school students, state that Keller was a fraud and that she couldn’t have achieved all she did being both deaf and blind. Other theories speculate that she never really existed.
Potentially Harmful Viral TikTok Challenges
Challenges are at the core of some of the biggest complaints about TikTok. In a TikTok challenge, viewers are encouraged to repeat the behavior exhibited in the video.
Some of the challenges are harmless and fun, such as dance and singing challenges. Others have a bigger purpose: the Ice Bucket Challenge was launched in 2014 to raise money for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ) research. In this challenge, the individual in the video poured a bucket of ice water over their heads and nominated someone they knew to do the same. The challenge raised approximately $115 million and enabled the ALS Association to increase the number of research projects on the fatal disease.
Despite the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, there are other less-altruistic challenges that have resulted in property damage, injuries, and deaths.
Foopah Challenge: Users flash the camera with their private body parts and attempt to avoid TikTok’s nudity filters. Several TikTok users who carried out this nudity challenge were banned, but there were several Foopah challenge videos made with the user’s face covered. This made it difficult for the app’s auto-moderation bots to flag the video.
Kool-Aid Man Challenge: In this challenge, people imitate the Kool-Aid Man commercial by running through fences or drywall and yelling, “Oh yeah.” The challenge has resulted in thousands of dollars in property damage.
Blackout Challenge: At least 7 children, all under 15, have died as a result of attempting this challenge. It calls for young people to tie a belt around their neck and strangle themselves until they pass out.
Face Wax Challenge: This challenge started in a beauty shop in the Netherlands. Wax is applied to the entire face and sometimes in the ears and nostrils. The wax is peeled away when it hardens. Dermatologists warn that wax can damage skin in sensitive areas, such as around the eyes. When wax is placed inside the nose, it can remove skin and hair that naturally protects the body from bacteria.
The Beezing Challenge: According to one TikTokker who spoke out on the app against this challenge, this trend is decades old, but resurfaced recently. In its recent iteration, TikTok users rub peppermint Burt’s Bees lip balm on their eyelids, expecting it to heighten the feeling of being drunk. Opthomologists warn that the practice can lead to chemical burns on the eyelids, pink eye, and even permanent vision loss.
How to Keep Your Child Safe on TikTok
In order to keep your child safe on TikTok, it is vital to talk to your child about being safe online and practicing responsible online behaviors. Parents also should supervise their child’s TikTok use and familiarize themselves with the app’s built-in safety features.
TikTok has responded to concerns about the app by updating safety features and creating information for parents and caregivers. Here are some TikTok safety tips you can implement today:
Set your child’s TikTok account to private. This is the safest way to use TikTok. With a private account, only people you approve can view your child’s videos or follow your child on the app. A private account is the default setting for users who are 13 to 15 years old.
Use TikTok Family Pairing. Parents can also monitor and control their child’s TikTok use by using the Family Pairing setting. This setting will sync your child’s account with your own. Family Pairing also gives parents the ability to limit the amount of time their child can use TikTok.
Make sure your child is using TikTok for Younger Users. There is a section of TikTok that is available to children under 13 that shows only child-safe content, but it is still not foolproof. If your child has encountered inappropriate content on TikTok, the offending account can be blocked and reported.
What to Do if Your Child Repeats Misinformation or Participates in a Dangerous Challenge
Despite your best efforts, you may hear your child repeating misinformation or hate speech they’ve heard on TikTok. You may even discover that they’ve participated in a dangerous TikTok challenge.
While your first thought may be to ban your child’s TikTok use, talking to your child about their words or behavior is vital. Here are some suggestions on how to talk about challenges and misinformation with your child.
Discussing hate speech and misinformation
Report the message, and explain why. Explain to your child that hate speech is harmful because it encourages hate or violence toward a person or group. Hate speech isn’t allowed on most social media platforms, including TikTok. Reporting hate speech helps prevent it from spreading.
Assess the emotional source. In your conversation with your child, listen closely for clues as to why they are repeating what they’ve heard online. Are they struggling with anger or isolation? Are their friends repeating these messages, and is your child trying to fit in?
Understand the information source. If your child is repeating misinformation, talk to them about the value of critically thinking about the information they consume online. It’s important to help kids understand how to check their sources and identify legitimate news, rather than fear-mongering, fake, or highly biased information.
Encourage empathy. Talk to your child about treating others the way your child wants to be treated. Consider sharing media that introduces your child to other perspectives, such as books that promote diversity and inclusion.
Discussing a TikTok challenge
Listen. Ask your child their feelings about the challenge and listen without judgment. With careful listening, you may find other issues to address, such as their wanting to be popular or fit it with peers.
Discuss consequences. Your child may state that they did the challenge because they were just trying to be funny. Make sure they understand that the impact of their actions outweighs their intent. Tell them about the risks, and use relevant news stories to illustrate the outcomes of TikTok challenges.
Pause before posting. Many schools have launched anti-bullying programs that teach students to question themselves before speaking to or about other students. These programs often use the acronym THINK: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? You can draw from this type of self-questioning with their TikTok use. Encourage your child to question whether their post or behavior will be hurtful or harmful and if they will regret the post or behavior later.
The bottom line
TikTok is unique among other social media platforms because its algorithm can quickly expose kids to a huge range of people and ideas. Unfortunately, those ideas can sometimes lead to dangerous TikTok challenges, or they can perpetuate hate speech and harmful misinformation. Parents, it’s important to keep tabs on your child’s TikTok use and have regular conversations about the content they’re consuming online. These conversations are a key part of helping your child learn how to navigate the internet on their own as safe, responsible young adults.