Is TikTok safe for kids and teenagers? Experts reveal what parents really need to know about the popular video platform

We've asked the experts for their verdict on the controversial app...

girl videoing herself for social media in bedroom
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Parents are concerned about the safety of children using social media, so we've done some digging and asked the experts to explain if TikTok is safe for kids.

TikTok, the short-form video platform, has taken the world by storm, with users able to produce viral content from all over the world at the click of a button. It uses algorithms to show users content based on their individual interests, but despite this unique offering it has led parents to become more concerned about keeping their kids safe online. This is especially the case now research has suggested it takes just 10 minutes for children to come across 'unsafe age-restricted' and 'illegal' content online - something that TikTok as well as other social media platforms have been accused of failing to monitor. The death of schoolgirl Molly Russell was one high-profile case that highlighted this, after an inquest into her death found she died from "an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content". The coroner said she had been viewing content related to suicide, depression and anxiety online.

It's no wonder then that parents are worried about their children using platforms like TikTok. But with research from media regulator Ofcom finding that TikTok is now being used by 53 per cent of children (and that's despite the platform's community guidelines stating that users must be 13 or older to have an account), it seems like the video-sharing app is here to stay. With this in mind, we spoke to the experts at Internet Matters, a not-for-profit organisation that helps parents navigate child internet safety.

They explained, "As with any social media app, TikTok carries a risk of seeing inappropriate content or talking with strangers. However, it also allows teens an opportunity to express themselves through short-form video clips and find a community around their passions. For parents, by staying up to date with what their teens do online, having regular conversations and utilising the safety features built into devices and the platform, they can manage these risks to help their teens enjoy the app safely."

There are a number of factors that make TikTok so popular - one of which being the creativity it gives its users thanks to the various filters and editing tools. Meanwhile, the fact that any video posted on the platform has the potential to go viral and be shown to millions of users is part of the appeal for some.

In addition, the way the algorithm works means that those who use it will be served content that aligns with their tastes and values, allowing them to find a community of people with the same interests. And these interests really could be anything - from fashion and football to more niche interests like ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response).

But there's also the 'addictive' nature of the app that keeps users hooked. The algorithm is designed to accurately predict which content users will prefer to engage with, creating a constant stream of content that keeps them scrolling.

Why can TikTok be unsafe for kids and teenagers?

1. Dangerous challenges and trends

Viral challenges and trends that encourage dangerous behaviour have previously led to devastating consequences. Archie Battersbee died in April 2022 after his mother believed he took part in the 'Blackout Challenge', which had previously been popular on TikTok.

In fact, a report by Bloomberg Businessweek outlined that the blackout challenge has been linked to the deaths of at least 15 kids aged 12 or younger in the 18 months leading up to November 2022, and at least five children aged 13 and 14 also died in that time.

2. Exploitation risks

Recent months have seen heightened concern around children who are susceptible to sexual predators online. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held in the US in January 2024, social media bosses including Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, and TikTok's Shou Zi Chew, were grilled about inadequate protections online for children.

The room was first shown a video of children speaking about their victimisation on social media, and senators recounted stories of young people taking their lives while being extorted after sharing photos with sexual predators.

However, Mr Chew insisted his platform made "careful product design choices to help make our app inhospitable to those seeking to harm teens" and said TikTok would spend $2bn (£1.57bn) on trust and safety measures.

3. Inappropriate content

Videos of sexually explicit material, glorification of drug use, and promoting eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviours or views are just some of the harmful types of content that children and teenagers are at risk of being exposed to on TikTok.

A study carried out by the Center for Countering Digital Hate set up new accounts in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia at the minimum age TikTok allows (13). They found that within 2.6 minutes TikTok recommended suicide-related content, within eight minutes the app served content related to eating disorders, and every 39 seconds TikTok recommended videos about body image and mental health to teens. The research also suggested that TikTok identifies the user’s vulnerability and capitalises on it.

Not to mention the potential radicalisation of teenagers due to videos promoting toxic or extremist views. Andrew Tate is just one example, whose misogynistic content promotes the ideas that women belong in the home, can't drive, and are a man's property. Though Tate, who was charged in Romania with rape and human trafficking in June 2023, has been banned from the platform himself, a YouGov survey found that, worryingly, one in six boys aged 6-15 have a positive view of Andrew Tate.

4. Impact on metal health

Studies suggest that constant exposure to highly curated and often unrealistic content can exacerbate issues related to self-image, anxiety, and depression among young users. In 2023, human rights group Amnesty International published findings from a collaboration with the Algorithmic Transparency Institute and AI Forensics, which came to the alarming conclusion that TikTok’s 'For You' feed risks pushing children and young people towards harmful mental health content.

The Tiktok For You Page is a feed of content created for a specific user, serving them videos it believes they will enjoy based on accounts they already follow and content they have previously engaged with. Amnesty's research showed how children and young people who watch mental health-related content on TikTok page are quickly being drawn into "rabbit holes" of potentially harmful content, including videos that romanticise and encourage depressive thinking, self-harm and suicide.

In fact, it found that within 20 minutes or less, more than half the videos of the For You Page for teen accounts that signalled interest in mental health content were related to depression and self harm.

Lisa Dittmer, Amnesty International Researcher, said: "The findings expose TikTok’s manipulative and addictive design practices, which are designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible. They also show that the platform’s algorithmic content recommender system, credited with enabling the rapid global rise of the platform, exposes children and young adults with pre-existing mental health challenges to serious risks of harm."

5. Addiction and screen time concerns

The addictive nature of TikTok's content delivery algorithm can lead to excessive screen time among teenagers, potentially affecting their mental health, sleep patterns, and physical well-being. Parents and experts have raised concerns about the app's design, which encourages prolonged usage because of its highly personalised and endlessly scrollable For You Page.

The Amnesty International research concluded that TikTok is designed to tap into users’ desires to be rewarded, which can lead them to develop habits that encourage addictive use. Amnesty researcher Lisa added, "TikTok may expose children and young people to serious health risks by persisting with its current business model geared more at keeping eyes glued on the platform over respecting the right to health of children and young people."

Meanwhile, governments are raising concerns about the addictive nature of TikTok. In February 2024, New York City, its schools and public hospital system, announced a lawsuit against the tech giants that run Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube, blaming their "addictive and dangerous" social media platforms for fueling a childhood mental health crisis that is disrupting learning and draining resources.

In 2022, Pew Research Centre published the finding that 16% of teens say they use TikTok 'almost constantly'.

6. Misinformation and propaganda

Like most social media platforms, TikTok is a breeding ground for fake news and misinformation. With research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) finding that teenagers are significantly more likely to believe online conspiracy theories than older generations, this is a worrying aspect of the app.

In fact, researchers at NewsGuard, a journalism and technology tool that tracks online information, found that when a TikTok user searches on the app for information about top news stories, nearly 20% of the videos presented as search results contain misinformation.

The Russia-Ukraine war is just one area where misinformation is rife on the social media platform. An investigation by the BBC uncovered nearly 800 fake accounts that had posted videos targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials, portraying them as obsessed with money and uncaring about ordinary Ukrainians or the war effort.

7. Data privacy concerns

TikTok has been scrutinised for its data collection practices, raising fears about the security and privacy of user information. Concerns have been particularly acute regarding the potential for sensitive data to be shared with governments or used for surveillance and tracking purposes.

In April 2023, the platform was fined £12.7m by the UK's Information Commissioner's Office (IOC) for illegally processing the data of 1.4 million children under 13 who were using its platform without parental consent. UK data protection law says that organisations that use personal data when offering information society services to children under 13 must have consent from their parents or carers.

UK Information Commissioner John Edwards said at the time: "An estimated one million under 13s were inappropriately granted access to the platform, with TikTok collecting and using their personal data. That means that their data may have been used to track them and profile them, potentially delivering harmful, inappropriate content at their very next scroll."

8. Cyberbullying and online harassment

Just like every other social media platform, TikTok creates an opportunity for cyberbullying, which can have damaging effects on children and teenagers. At its worst, cyberbullying can lead to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and self-harm.

Research from found that, of all the social networks, kids on YouTube are the most likely to be cyberbullied at 79 per cent, followed by Snapchat at 69 percent, TikTok at 64 per cent, and Facebook at 49 per cent.

How is TikTok trying to make the platform safer for teenagers and children?

TikTok's community guidelines outline how the app intends to ensure children and young people are safe while using it. On youth safety, TikTok says that users must be 13 years and older to have an account, and that accounts will be banned if they learn the user is below the minimum age.

They add: "We do not allow content that may put young people at risk of exploitation, or psychological, physical, or developmental harm. This includes child sexual abuse material (CSAM), youth abuse, bullying, dangerous activities and challenges, exposure to overtly mature themes, and consumption of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or regulated substances. If we become aware of youth exploitation on our platform, we will ban the account, as well as any other accounts belonging to the person."

In addition, TikTok’s Family Pairing feature allows you to link your TikTok account to your child’s so you can:

  • Limit how long your child can spend on TikTok each day
  • Limit the appearance of content that may not be appropriate for all audiences
  • Limit who can send messages to your child
  • Filter video keywords to tailor the content your child sees
  • Mute TikTok notifications at certain times of the day
  • Manage their privacy and safety settings
  • Choose whether they can have a private or public account

How to set up family pairing

  1. In the TikTok app, tap Profile at the bottom.
  2. Tap the Menu ☰ button at the top.
  3. Tap Settings and privacy, then tap Family Pairing.
  4. Tap Parent or Teen.
  5. Follow the steps in the app to link accounts.

How to manage Family Pairing controls

  1. In the TikTok app, tap Profile at the bottom.
  2. Tap the Menu ☰ button at the top.
  3. Tap Settings and privacy, then tap Family Pairing.
  4. Select the account you want to manage.
  5. Update the controls, as needed.

In addition to this feature, the experts at Internet Matters explain, "TikTok has several controls that are activated automatically for accounts where the person is under 18. This includes a 60-minute daily screen time limit and their account being set to private by default. Due to these additional features, it is imperative that parents ensure their teens are truthful about their age when creating an account."

How to keep your child safe on TikTok

Despite its challenges, TikTok can be a platform for positive self-expression and creativity. Here's how parents can support their child's healthy engagement:

  1. Open dialogue: Foster open communication with your child about their TikTok experiences. Create a safe space for them to share any concerns or questions they may have about the app.
  2. Set boundaries: Establish clear guidelines regarding screen time limits and appropriate usage of TikTok. Encourage balance by encouraging offline activities and hobbies.
  3. Collaborative exploration: Explore TikTok together with your child and participate in creating content as a family. This not only strengthens your bond but also allows you to provide guidance and support in navigating the platform responsibly.
  4. Stay informed: Stay updated on the latest trends and developments on TikTok. Regularly review your child's activity on the app and address any emerging concerns promptly.

By understanding the platform, recognising potential risks, and promoting positive engagement, you can help ensure that your child's experience on TikTok is safe, enjoyable, and enriching.

Ellie Hutchings
Family News Editor

Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.