TikTok Challenges Present Risks For Children

In February, TikTok, a video-sharing app, updated its policies in the U.S., with a focus on safety for minors and LGBTQ individuals and on developing age-appropriate content, among other topics.

The safety measures include a permanent in-app guide which pushes teens to engage with a "4-step" process which is also known as: "stop, think, decide, act") before engaging in online challenges. These measures also include a dedicated policy category for dangerous acts and challenges in the reporting menu to make it easier for users to report problem challenges.

TikTok challenges have caused teen deaths. A few examples include the "Benadryl challenge", in which teens on TikTok challenged each other to take large doses of Benadryl, an over-the-counter allergy drug, to trigger hallucinations. Another dangerous challenge was one in which users of the app challenged each other to file their teeth with a nail file. Dentists state this can destroy the user's tooth enamel (which cannot regenerate) and damages other parts of the teeth in the long term.

TikTok is also pushing dedicated safety videos from curated creators to users under 18 via their "For You" feeds to further raise awareness of safety issues around challenges.

TikTok has been facing months of scrutiny by regulators in the EU following consumer protection and privacy complaints and an emergency intervention in Italy in 2021, related to concerns over a "blackout challenge" which local media had linked to the death of a child who choked themselves. Natasha Lomas "TikTok pushes bundle of teen safety measures internationally" https://techcrunch.com/2022/02/23/tiktok-teen-safety-international-push/ (Feb. 24, 2022).

Commentary and Checklist

According to a report by Hootsuite, TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2021, with 656 million downloads, 100 million downloads more than Instagram.

Unfortunately, in 2020 alone, 41 deaths had been linked to TikTok, nine of which are believed to have been suicides.

Parents and other safe adults who work with children should be vigilant whenever their kids are online, and not rely on companies like TikTok to do enough to protect children from dangerous cyber exploitation and other internet use dangers.

How can parents and safe adults help protect children using the internet?

  • Set rules for computer and mobile device use
  • Keep computers in public areas of the home and monitor children's online activity. Know the child's passwords to computer, email, and social media accounts
  • Monitor your child's mobile devices for sites visited, email, cell phone, and text use, and let your child know you are doing it
  • Teach the child what personal information is and to never share it with people outside the family. Help your child make location, gender, and age neutral email addresses
  • Instruct your children to use privacy settings on social media sites and also remind them that even high privacy settings do not guarantee their personal information will not be shared. Know who the child's social media friends are
  • Encourage the child to show you inappropriate email, texts, and social media posts. Save them or take screen shots as evidence of cyber exploitation
  • Remind the child that anything posted on the Internet stays on the Internet forever. Teach the child emails, posts, images, and texts cannot be kept private. They can be shared and forwarded
  • Advise the child not to respond to online bullying or online sexual activity. Report any cyber incidents involving children that are sexual in nature
  • Change the child's phone number if he or she is receiving bullying, threatening, or sexual texts and/or calls
  • Discourage children from accessing the Internet from locations that are not secure
  • Instruct the child never to meet someone he or she met online unless a trusted adult is present
  • Approve all images, videos, and blogs before the child posts them; and
  • Listen to the child. Children do send signs and signals that communicate something is wrong. Keep lines of communication open and encourage the child to share any bad online experiences.
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