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A parents' guide to TikTok: What parents need to know to keep kids safe

Here's what parents should know about TikTok — with all its challenges and videos — in order to establish guidelines for their kids.
TikTok is a social media platform that allows people to share videos that last anywhere from a few seconds to up to three minutes and its taken off with teens.
TikTok is a social media platform that allows people to share videos that last anywhere from a few seconds to up to three minutes and its taken off with teens.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

When it comes to TikTok, parents often hear about dangerous challenges — the milk crate challenge, the ‘devious lick’ challenge, the skull breaker challenge. To many adults, they sound weird, causing some to wonder if TikTok is simply a platform that compels teens to do dumb stuff. But TikTok is a lot more than that: It includes videos from celebrities, average people, doctors, scientists, historians and anyone else hoping to earn some views based off their TikToks, which can range from informative to silly.

Experts urge parents to learn more about each social media platform and then establish guidelines for how their children use each one.

“Children are going to need to understand how to navigate this, and I would imagine more people in the U.S. have a smart phone than a driver’s license. You are the governing body that allows your child to be licensed on social media,” Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY Parents. “You’ve got to create some sort of program for them to learn the strategies and the tools and the rules.”

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social media platform that allows people to share videos that last anywhere from a few seconds to up to three minutes. Like any other social media site, users can follow people they know or strangers to watch their content. Under the “For You” page, TikTok curates videos it thinks people will like based off their past viewings. On “Following,” people can see videos from those they follow. While some know TikTok only for its reputation with challenges, many are entertaining and people go viral for their takes on dances or other trends.

While there's no age limit to joining TikTok, experts recommend kids should be 13 before starting their own account.

1. What are your teens watching?

It's easy for some parents to know what their teens follow on TikTok because their children will readily share videos they think are hilarious, dumb or cringey.

“My son is always sending me stuff,” Dr. Candice Jones, an Orlando, Florida-based pediatrician, told TODAY Parents. “Sometimes I absolutely enjoy that and think, ‘Oh you’re right. That was funny.’”

But other teens might be more hesitant to share. That’s when parents might need to ask their teens about what they’re viewing. If there’s anything in the news related to TikTok, bringing it up could be a good way to ask teens what they think. The Facebook whistleblower story, for example, is a natural way for parents to start an organic conversation about their teens’ views on all social media.

“It’s fantastic to throw the whistleblowers under the bus,” Gilboa said. “You can be like, ‘Oh did you hear about the whistleblower? What do you think about that?’”

Teens might surprise their parents by noting they realized social media manipulates people, or they might not know very much at all and parents have a chance to share their values.

2. Lead by example

Any parent knows that sometimes telling a teen to do something won’t end with the desired results. That’s why Jones believes that parents should set a good example when it comes to social media use. She recommends that parents think about how much they mindlessly watch people on TikTok or how often they doom scroll.

“We want to be good stewards ourselves because our kids are watching,” she said. “We are putting stuff out there and we don’t want to put something out there that contradicts what we’re telling our kids — because they’re going to do what they see us do and follow what they see.”

3. Encourage them to use TikTok for good

TikTok can be a place for a teen to express their thoughts on things they love and channel it into a positive message.

“What are their passions and how can they proactively use social media to make the world a better place and allow them to be known for things that matter to them?” Gilboa said. “One of the ways that we really build our kids up is helping them by saying, ‘Hey you’re an expert in this thing. Teach me about it.’”

4. What’s behind the scenes

While some videos certainly involve people just having some fun, others TikToks are trying to sell a product or persuade people to do something bad, such as damaging school property. Parents need to be sure their children understand what happens to create a TikTok.

“They definitely need to be mature enough to know the firm reality that this person has a whole lot of makeup on, they may be using filters. That’s just five minutes of them, that’s not what they’re like in their whole life,” Jones said. “There are so many things to consider, so before we just let our kids on (social media), we need to have these conversations with them.”