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TikTok Wants to Grow Up, but Finds It Tough to Keep Kids Out

TikTok Wants to Grow Up, but Finds It Tough to Keep Kids Out

TikTok Wants to Grow Up, but Finds It Tough to Keep Kids Out
February 17
08:57 2020

By Georgia Wells and Yoree KohFeb.

TikTok has an unusual problem: The video-sharing app is too popular among kids.

Most social-media companies clamor for the attention of younger users, a tech-savvy, trendsetting cohort that has flocked to TikTok’s playful mix of homemade goofs and influencer-driven memes. Yet the youthful vibe presents a predicament for TikTok because many devotees are under 13.

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance Inc., has worked to broaden its appeal to adults, which it believes is critical to its growth and survival. It has also been trying to boot younger children off the app, and is required to take offline all videos made by children under 13 under a settlement it reached last year with the Federal Trade Commission.

But the kids have stuck around. Of 10-year-old girls with smartphones in the U.S., about 70% used TikTok in 2019, according to new data from Jiminy, an app for parents that tracks the smartphone habits of their children.

The app’s popularity among younger kids is an extreme example of a dilemma common in the tech industry: Companies struggle to verify the ages of their users without demanding personal details. Children easily circumvent some restrictions designed to keep them out, at times with the help of their parents.

Mia Ellis let her 12-year-old daughter Josie use her birth date to get on TikTok. Josie had heard about the app from school friends and saw friends from dance class posting choreographed dances in between classes. She wanted in.

“It was definitely an ‘everyone else has it’ kind of thing,” said the Ankeny, Iowa-based mother.

TikTok’s predecessor, Musical.ly, was popular among young kids. In its early days, it featured video after video of tween girls lip-syncing. ByteDance paid almost $1 billion for Musical.ly in 2017 and changed the name the following year. A spokesman for TikTok described the rebranding as a move to diversify its user base and content.

At a meeting in Los Angeles in 2018, TikTok Chief Executive Alex Zhu told employees the app’s popularity with kids could make it a passing fad if they didn’t attract older users. He told them to get younger kids off the app and modify it to appeal to a broader audience fast to build the business.

TikTok is among the most popular apps in the U.S. among children, who often spend hours every week watching its videos.

Apps that children 9 to 12 with access to a smartphone spend the most time on

“This is our last chance,” Mr. Zhu said, according to people who were present at the meeting. “If we fail, that’s it.”

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As part of the effort, TikTok’s content team started checking videos the app encouraged users to emulate and rejecting ones seen as too juvenile. Executives banned advertisers from displaying animated graphics that would appeal to children. And TikTok started developing artificial intelligence that could detect the age of users from images of their faces.

TikTok also started asking people their age when they log in. Users are supposed to be at least 13 and TikTok started disabling certain sections of the app, such as messaging and posting videos, for those who enter a younger birthday.

“The full TikTok experience is intended for users age 13 and over,” a TikTok spokeswoman said. “If we become aware of a wrongly created account by a person under the age of 13, we will delete its information and terminate the account.”

Such efforts showed results: In early 2019, the TikTok hashtags #over30, #over40 and #MomsOfTikTok started trending, accompanying videos about parenting challenges, annoying bosses and other indignities associated with being an adult. The new users put TikTok on the map as a major social-media player.

Then the FTC settlement, which also came in early 2019, hit TikTok with a nearly $6 million fine to settle allegations over its predecessor collecting information about children without their parents’ consent, underscoring the need to resolve that issue. Among its grievances, the FTC took issue with Musical.ly letting accounts be public by default, potentially allowing adults to contact children via the app and see users within their geographic location.

It was the largest settlement ever imposed at the time for violations related to children’s privacy. Federal rules prohibit collecting data from kids under 13 without parental consent.

TikTok continues to have users under 13—and they are often ardent fans. In the U.S., 10-year-old girls who use TikTok spend on average more than four hours a week on the app, according to Jiminy. That is enough time to watch more than 1,000 videos.

Among the concerns: TikTok includes a feed of short videos that are curated by an algorithm and, depending on the user’s settings, TikToks displays videos from strangers. If both users follow each other, they can send each other messages, which can make younger kids vulnerable to inappropriate contact with grown-ups they don’t know.

About 28% of the app’s users were under 18 as of early last year, according to internal documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. TikTok doesn’t release figures for its user demographics. More than 40 million people in the U.S. downloaded TikTok in 2019, according to mobile data and analytics firm App Annie.

Amy Haggarty, who lives in the Chicago area, said she helped her 9-year-old son Caleb create an account last spring, with a fake birthday.

“That’s my rule. They can’t lie about their age without me being complicit in it,” she said.

TikTok is now trying to encourage family-friendly content that models parents working with their children. In December the company promoted the hashtag #meetmyfam, a TikTok spokesman said.

The company is also finalizing initiatives geared at protecting teens, a spokeswoman said.

Verifying a child’s age online is difficult to do without collecting data on the user or asking for more information, which can run afoul of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, said Stephen Balkam, founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit.

TikTok has built an artificial-intelligence tool that scans faces in videos to estimate users’ ages. If the person appears too young, TikTok demotes the video in the algorithm so that other users don’t see their content, according to former employees.

It isn’t a perfect science. TikTok’s tool repeatedly identified an employee of ByteDance as younger than 13, and hid her videos on the app, until she was able to appeal to colleagues to flag her videos as appropriate, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Janelle Stevenson relies on the minimum-age requirement for TikTok and other apps to deny her 11-year-old daughter Rebecca’s requests to create an account.

“Once she turns 13, we’ll have to talk these things through,” said Ms. Stevenson, who lives in Fairfield, Conn.

Her concerns aren’t entirely around data privacy. She is more worried about how giving Rebecca an account could expose her to creepy strangers that could contact her via the messaging feature.

Ms. Stevenson went through the app with her daughter and concluded that 99% of the stuff was harmless. “But there’s that 1% that I don’t know.”

Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com and Yoree Koh at yoree.koh@wsj.com

source wall street

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