What Educators Really Need to Know About TikTok

Many educators have been using TikTok to entertain students and vent about the difficulties of teaching under COVID-19.
Many educators have been using TikTok to entertain students and vent about the difficulties of teaching under COVID-19.
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Is TikTok really mining mountains of data from children, giving the information to the Chinese government, engaging in political censorship, and leaving its users vulnerable to hacking?

All four issues have been in the headlines recently. Here are answers to the questions teachers, administrators, and policymakers are likely to have:

First, let’s take a look at how educators are using TikTok.

Uber-popular with tweens and teens, TikTok is a video-sharing platform on which users share short (60-seconds or less) clips of dance moves, comedy, memes, art, viral challenges, and just about anything else you can imagine. To wit: Ed Week’s “principals of TikTok,” who use the platform for everything from demonstrating proper COVID-19 cleaning protocols to sharing absurd moments from the school day. Many teachers also turned to TikTok this spring to entertain their students and vent about remote learning.

The app has been downloaded more than 2 billion times worldwide, with well over 120 million active users estimated in the U.S. alone. That translated to an estimated $17 billion in revenue in 2019.

What’s the biggest thing I need to know right now?

That would be the renewed privacy concerns.

Like many other social-media platforms, TikTok collects gobs of information from users, including the contents of their private messages, what type of device they’re using, their internet protocol (IP) addresses, and all manner of information on what types of videos they watch and how they watch them. Under its loosest settings, TikTok can also collect from users’ age, phone number, precise geolocation data, and more.

While this is a general concern for all users, many privacy advocates are particularly concerned because of TikTok’s huge adoption by tweens and teens.

This spring, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a host of other organizations (including Consumer Reports and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Among the groups’ allegations: that TikTok fails to obtain “verifiable parental consent” before collecting information from children under 13; fails to offer parents the right to review and delete young children’s personal information; and doesn’t offer a clearly labeled link to its online privacy notice.

“Strong FTC action is needed to protect children from substantial risks to their privacy and well-being that come from sharing some of the personal forms of personal information—their images, their words, and their thoughts—to TikTok’s 800 million users worldwide without their parents’ knowledge and informed consent,” reads the 56-page complaint.

This sounds familiar…

That’s probably because TikTok’s predecessor company, Musical.ly, settled with the FTC in 2019 for failing to post a clear privacy policy, failing to provide direct notice to parents, failing to obtain verifiable parental consent, and failing to delete children’s personal information at the request of parents.

The $5.7 million settlement did not include an admission of guilt, but the company did enter into a consent decree in which it vowed to no longer violate the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, commonly known as COPPA. The new complaint alleges that despite the company’s new registration process, updated privacy policy, and the deletion of summer user information, TikTok is “continuing to flout” that agreement.

The company has also been hit with a number of private class-action lawsuits related to COPPA violations, including one by Illinois parents that it recently settled for $1.1 million.

Remind me what COPPA is all about?

In short, the federal law requires companies that offer websites, apps, and online services to notify parents and obtain their consent before collecting any personal information on children under 13. (For all the detail you could possibly want, here’s the full EdWeek explainer on the topic.)

Didn’t TikTok add a new, more limited account for children under 13?

Yes.

According to a December blog post by the company, “TikTok for Younger Users,” as the service is called, “introduces additional safety and private protections” including a view-only mode and “extensive limits on content and user interaction.” The company also recently launched a Youth Portal, to teach about internet safety, and new settings to give parents more control over how their children use the platform.

However, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and its fellow complainants allege that the age gate that’s supposed to direct pre-teens into these “younger user” accounts is ridiculously easy to bypass.

They also allege that TikTok is still collecting and sharing prohibited personal information from even these younger-user accounts.

Sounds like a problem for the company and for parents. Why do educators need to worry about this?

First and foremost, large numbers of your students are almost certainly on TikTok. At minimum, you need to know what the platform is and how kids are using it–including for viral challenges that have sparked fires and electrocution concerns in schools, as well as racist and offensive content that administrators are often left to deal with.

Despite the classroom management challenges it can pose, some schools have also started experimenting with the platform as an instructional tool and as the basis for school clubs.

And TikTok has been vocal about its intention to get into the education market, announcing earlier this year a $50 million Creative Learning Fund that “supports creators with the production of learning content, provides resources for learners, and introduces emerging teachers to the TikTok platform.” As part of its #LearnOnTikTok effort, the company has enlisted prominent partners such as science educator Bill Nye and motivational speaker Tyra Banks to produce educational content.

What does the company say about these privacy concerns?

“TikTok takes the issue of safety seriously for all our users, and we continue to further strengthen our safeguards and introduce new measures to protect young people on the app,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We are committed to continuously evaluating and improving our protections.

In a series of recent statements, the company has also responded to a wave of security-related concerns, including reports that users were vulnerable to hackers and that the platform accessed iOS users’ sometimes-sensitive clipboard content.

How is this related to the Trump administration’s threats to ban TikTok?

In recent weeks, both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have raised concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership and relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. Central to their complaints are worries that the company might currently, or could be compelled to, share users’ personal information with the Chinese government, which is in the midst of building one of the most extreme digital surveillance states on the planet.

Calling TikTok a “cyber threat,” the U.S. Army has also banned the app (which it has used as a recruitment tool) on government-issued phones.

The administration and some U.S. lawmakers have also raised censorship concerns, worrying that the company may be changing or removing some videos to protect the political interests of the Chinese government (around Hong Kong’s independence, for example.) In response, a government group called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States announced a national security review of the company in 2019.

For its part, TikTok has said that it stores all data from U.S. users in the United States and Singapore and that the information is not subject to Chinese law. There is no public evidence to date that Beijing has accessed TikTok users’ information.

In addition, the company said in a June statement, “we have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content, and we would not do so if asked.”

Is this a partisan flap?

No.

The Trump administration’s trade war with China has clearly brought fresh scrutiny to TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.

But a host of Democratic lawmakers have also raised concerns. In 2019, for example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, joined Republican colleague Tom Cotton of Arkansas in calling TikTok a “potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore.”

And in May, more than a dozen House Democrats, led by Ann McLane Kuster (N.H.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) submitted a letter to the FTC supporting the new privacy complaint against the company.

“Given the reasonable concerns that the Chinese government may have access to the data TikTok collects on Americans, it is all the more troubling that the company appears to intentionally be in violation of U.S. data privacy laws,” the lawmakers wrote.

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