More than a third of TikTok users in the U.S. are reportedly 14 years old and under, raising another concern over the app’s security policies.
Out of its 49 million daily users in the U.S. in July, TikTok classified 18 million users to the 14 years old and under age group, with 20 million users older than that and the rest with unknown ages, The New York Times reported, citing internal company data and documents. The number of early teenage users at 13 and 14 years old were not specified, but according to a former TikTok employee, workers had pointed out that videos from pre-teens were allowed to remain on the platform for weeks.
TikTok requires birth data information for new accounts, with U.S. users under 13 years old only allowed to access a version of the app that prevents them from sharing personal information or videos. However, some pre-teen users may be lying to bypass the restrictions. This may place TikTok in trouble with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires online platforms to secure permission from parents before collecting data on children under 13 years old.
In addition to their self-reported birth dates, TikTok estimates user ages through methods such as facial recognition algorithms and comparison of activity against those of others whose ages have been estimated, according to the sources. The app, however, does not use the classifications to take down videos from users under 13 years old, or to flag the requirement to secure parental permissions, one of the former employees told The New York Times.
“As a private company, we don’t disclose user demographics. We’re proud to provide a fun place for families to create content and spend time together, particularly during the pandemic. We’re committed to protecting the privacy and safety of the people and families who come to TikTok for entertainment, self-expression, and connection,” a TikTok spokesperson told Digital Trends in response to a request for confirmation of the reported U.S. user data.
“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,” the spokesperson added, pointing to TikTok’s Youth Portal, where teens and their families can learn about internet safety, and the Family Pairing feature, which grants parents greater control over their teenager’s experience on TikTok through options such as setting screen time limitations, activating restricted viewing mode, and controlling messages.
The New York Times report comes after a class-action lawsuit against TikTok was filed earlier this month, over allegations that the app was stealing data from minors and sending it to China. A separate investigation by The Wall Street Journal identified that TikTok unlawfully collected unique device identifiers on Android for at least 15 months.
Microsoft, considered as the front-runner to buy TikTok, will need to contend with these issues, in addition to the technical challenges of such an acquisition.
Updated August 14, 2020: Added TikTok’s response.
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