Call me old fashioned, but when I think of children's birthday party I envision a slew of kids running around, laughing and playing musical chairs or pin the tail on the donkey. Unfortunately, not all birthday parties are as innocent and simple as the parties we grew up with. I learned this first hand during a recent conversation with a mom friend, who caught me off guard when she told me she saw my 8-year-old daughter on TikTok at Clara's birthday party. After my initial, WTF thoughts, so many questions began circling: who, what, where, when, why, but mostly HOW did my 8-year-old end up on TikTok!? Especially when my husband and I have strict rules about our children having access to these online platforms. After taking a further deep dive into the TikTok world, I immediately asked Clara’s mom to take the video down. But in what new world were children's birthday parties entering and how could I better prepare myself and my kids for it? Here's what I have learned so far.
TikTok is a social network intended for users age 13 and over, that is dedicated to short, self-made music videos. You can record yourself lip-synching and dancing to popular songs, share your own musical creations, remix titles, or browse other people’s work on the app. At first glance, it sounds like a fun and innocent way for kids to get creative; however, TikTok isn’t as wholesome and safe as it would lead you to believe, especially when it comes to kids. Below are some highlighted dangers if you’ve ever wondered “Is TikTok safe for children.”
1. Stranger Danger & Sexual Predators
Although the app claims to be meant for users who are 13+, no proof is required to download or use it - this is something I learned very quickly with my daughter and her friends (WHO ARE ONLY 8 & 9 YEARS OLD!!). Children are able to share pictures, videos and live stories without knowing the ramifications of this information sharing. With its ease of use and anonymity, anyone can watch or comment on children’s photos and videos, which may lead to predatory behavior; and unfortunately can become a hunting ground for pedophiles. Disturbing hashtags, flattery to lure young users, and inappropriate sexual comments posted underneath videos of school-aged children dancing and singing; highlight the dangers and potentially life-threatening consequences of this app. Medium exposed a gut-wrenching piece entitled "I'm a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old-Girl. Here's What I Learned" that will blow your mind on the world of online sexual predators.
2. Dangerous Viral Challenges
A new ‘dare culture’ has been circulating on TikTok that encourage its users to attempt life-threatening stunts. Challenges that encourage kids to trip someone until they hit their head on the ground (the skullbreaker challenge); or mix-up household ingredients, including bleach and hold it to their eye to change its colour (the eye bleach challenge) are two terrifying examples of the life threatening dangers of these popular viral stunts. These internet dares can be attractive to young people who want to have a moment in the spotlight and may feel the peer pressure to do so; however, they unfortunately lack the cognitive ability and a full understanding of the negative repercussions that could play out.
3. Inappropriate Content
Seeing sexualized/naked/illegal content, swearing and pornographic content has all been reported with TikTok and its younger users. With school-aged children, even with parental restrictions, musical lyrics and suggestive dancing are both impressionable content that is difficult for their maturing brains to digest. Limit the content your children see by enabling a restriction mode and keep vigilant with their ongoing viewing to ensure age-appropriate videos.
Cyberbullying involves repeated harassment and some type of power imbalance with kids - and typically, their peers at school. Posted TikTok videos (whether private or public) allow viewers to post comments; and unfortunately, body shaming and insults to make kids feel humiliated and worthless are common occurrences. Being exposed to behavior like this at a young age can mentally scar and even teach kids the wrong way to act online. Cyberbullying can further lead to depression and even suicidal thoughts.
5. Privacy Concerns
Having a digital footprint is becoming more common with our younger children. The trail of personal information left behind when they use the Internet can leave permanent and vulnerable information. In TikTok, it’s important to note, that even with a private account, profile information such as profile picture, username, and bio will be visible to all users. TikTok has also come under fire for past-alleged violations of collecting names, email addresses, videos and other personal information from its young users. As parents, it’s important for us to help our children see where and how they’re vulnerable with information sharing to ensure they have the tools to make good online decisions.
What can you do as a parent?
Parenting in the digital age is hard. As parents, it’s important to face the facts that our children are going to grow up surrounded by technology and social media with all the benefits and consequences that come with it. The majority of time, the internet presents positive opportunities and benefits to children. However, technology changes just as quickly as our children do, so it’s important to have ongoing conversations about digital citizenship and online safety – that way they’ll be better prepared if they find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. Here are some tips that can help us parents guide our children:
- Use privacy settings: Strict privacy settings and high restrictions can be set on your child’s account to ensure a safe environment. It’s important as parents to check-in regularly with these settings to ensure your technology-savvy little one hasn’t made any changes to these safety measures.
Set ground rules: Honest and open communication, along with supplying legitimate reasons for online restrictions can set your family’s household standard for proper Internet use. An Internet contract is an easy first step to teaching your children about making good decisions online and can make them accountable for their actions. It's also important to remember that their friends will all have different rules set by their own families. As a parent, it's important to have clear guidelines as to what's appropriate within your own household and communicate these personal rules to other parents and friends as needed.
- Be the example: Internet safety for kids has become one of the most challenging aspects of parenting in modern times. Modelling good internet behaviours for children by adhering to the same ground rules you’ve asked them to follow is a strong tool to keep kids smart and safe online.
- Utilize online resources available to you:
Clara's birthday party was a shocking reminder that birthday parties are not always what they used to be. It also pointed out that people parent very differently and your rules don't always translate into other households. If you're strict on the access your children have to social media, ensure your kids know those rules and expectations. And have the confidence to set those same expectations with other parents when your kids attend birthday parties.