Hands of a person opening the TikTok app on a smartphone
January 19, 2021

VICTORY: TikTok’s New Privacy and Safety Features for Children

In January 2021, TikTok announced several enhanced privacy and safety settings for minors, making it more difficult for children to be groomed, sexually exploited, or abused through this extremely popular platform.

TikTok’s announcement states “As young people start their digital journey, we believe it’s important to provide them with age-appropriate privacy settings and controls.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Since the National Center on Sexual Exploitation included TikTok on our 2020 Dirty Dozen for providing predators a paradise for grooming and abusing children, we’ve been advising TikTok on how to better protect the well-being of all its users – especially kids.

We were thrilled when, shortly after our initial meeting, TikTok instituted several of our suggestions which included removing the automatic 30 day “reset” on safety features and initiating a pin-code protected “Family Pairing” mode so guardians could monitor and manage their children’s TikTok profile more closely. Later in 2020, TikTok also disabled Direct Messaging for users under 16 which was a feature used as a primary means for predators to engage with and groom children.

Thanks @tiktok_us for making your platform safer for kids. There’s more you can do, though, so don’t stop now! #DirtyDozenList Click To Tweet

The latest iteration of improvements announced in January 2021 are among the recommendations NCOSE pushed for hardest—ones we’d like to see implemented across all social media platforms. TikTok has set industry standards that other social media and online platforms would do well to emulate. (Snapchat! Instagram! Twitter! Take note of this TikTok trend!)

What TikTok Changed to Improve Child Online Safety in January 2021

The enhanced safety settings—which TikTok announced on Wednesday, January 13—primarily center on 1) removing several features for 13-to-15-year-old users that put them at unnecessary risk and 2) defaulting its safety settings to more restricted options for teens 17 and under. While we believe that all of the new safety features should apply to all minors, we are grateful TikTok is making strides to protect their youngest users who are only just learning how to navigate their online presence and don’t yet understand the many risks of the virtual world.

The specific changes TikTok made include:  

  1. Defaulting the accounts of 13-to-15-year-olds to “private.” This means that only someone the user approves as a follower will be able to see their videos. 
  2. Removing the ability for “Everyone” (i.e. anyone) to comment on videos made by 13-to-15-year-olds and replacing the comment options with only “Friends” or “No One.” This is significant as previously predators would continuously post extremely sexualized comments on minors’ videos.  
  3. Removing the Duet and Stitch settings; making it available only to users 16 and over. For 16-to-17-year-old users, the default setting will be set to “Friends.” 
  4. Restricting the ability to download videos made by users 15 and under. Users who 16 or older can chose to allow downloads of their videos, although the default setting for 16-to-17-year-olds will be Off. (Note: TikTok videos routinely appear on hardcore pornography sites, even when they don’t contain nudity. Please speak to your teen about this ever-growing trend and suggest that the download option stays off). 
  5. Turning off the “Suggest your account to others” as the default for users who are 15 and younger. This is a feature pedophiles used to point their predatory peers to additional minors to watch and target.

These changes, in and of themselves, had us cheering. But that’s not all. 

In December 2020, TikTok also rolled out major updates to their Community Guidelines that provide robust new standards regarding adult nudity and sexual activities as well as the safety of minors.

TikTok clearly defines several terms such as “grooming,” “sexual exploitation,” and “sexual harassment.” The Guidelines explicitly list the type of activity and content that is prohibited on their platform, including content that “depicts, promotes, or glorifies” prostitution or pornography, content that simulates sexual activity (either verbally, in text, or even through emojis), or non-consensual sex. The minor safety section outlines the type of actions that would constitute grooming (e.g. content that normalizes sexual contact between and adult and a minor) and even goes so far as to prohibit sexually dance such as “twerking, breast shaking, pelvic thrusting or fondling” oneself or another. 

Of course, what matters most is TikTok’s commitment to consistent application of these new safety features across its platform. It’s too early to tell just how well TikTok is implementing these new guidelines. As such, we will continue watching how quickly violations are dealt with wherever they arise. We’ll also keep advocating—and we hope you will too—that Restricted Mode is the default for teens and that there is more human-based review of abusive and exploitative accounts. While we applaud TikTok for all the improvements this past year, we still want to see more before recommending teens – certainly young teens – are on TikTok.

TikTok’s mission is “to inspire creativity and bring joy.” Prioritizing kids and fighting sexploitation and abuse on its platform will make that mission more of a reality.

Thank TikTok for creating a safer platform!

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Lina Nealon

Director of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives

Lina Nealon is committed to promoting the dignity of every human being and creating a society where everyone can reach their full potential.  As the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s Director of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives, she spearheads NCOSE’s campaigns to hold corporations accountable for profiting from sexual exploitation. As Founding Director of Demand Abolition, Lina designed and led the first national program combatting the demand for paid sex that drives the global sex industry. Under her leadership, Demand Abolition coalesced a vastly diverse network of survivors, movement leaders, and allies across sectors and disciplines to implement tactics to stop sex buyers, disrupt commercial sex markets, and transform cultural norms around buying sex.  Lina was the leading architect of the Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE), a collaboration between twelve major US cities measurably decreasing demand in their communities and a founder co-chair of the World Without Exploitation coalition.

Ms. Nealon has advised governors, attorneys general, mayors and other elected officials, police chiefs, leading philanthropists, and business leaders in promising practices to reduce demand and has drafted numerous policies and legislation at the federal, state, and local levels to stop exploitation. She co-chaired the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Anti-Trafficking Taskforce Demand Committee and was a founding member of Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Working Group on Modern Slavery. Ms. Nealon has provided expert commentary and has published articles for top-tier media including MSNBC, PBS, NPR, Boston Globe, Congressional Quarterly Review, Al Jazeera, etc.

A mother of three girls and a sexual assault survivor herself, Ms. Nealon is driven to elevate survivor leadership and promote women’s and girls’ empowerment. As a Policy Specialist and Trainer with the Institute for Inclusive Security, Lina ensured women’s significant representation in peace processes and reconstruction efforts across dozens of post-conflict countries. She served as Executive Director of Girls on the Run (Greater Triangle Area, NC), sat on the Women2Women Advisory Council, and has mentored numerous young women in building their confidence, leadership skills, and resilience. Lina and her husband Brian are raising four young, adventurous, nature-loving, socially-conscious abolitionists in Durham, North Carolina.

Further Reading