Before I go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way: If you’re reading this, you are almost certainly too old to feel at home on TikTok. The company declined to provide information about its users, but judging from what’s on the platform, the median TikTok user seems to hover in the midteens. TikTok is full of acne-studded faces, barely concealed tween angst and impenetrable youth-culture references. As far as I can tell, there is no way for adults to use it without feeling as if they are chaperoning a high school dance.
Officially, TikTok users must be 13 or older to join. But the age-verification process is easy to circumvent, and while browsing the platform, I stumbled upon several videos starring people who appeared to be much younger. In its previous incarnation as Musical.ly, TikTok drew fire from some privacy advocates, who accused it of pushing the limits of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a law that prohibits the collection of certain types of information from users younger than 13.
“It’s clearly a really popular, cool site, but you also have the issue of kids being significantly too young for it,” said James P. Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews tech products for families. “It’s not that the content on TikTok isn’t O.K. for your 15-year-old. It’s what happens to your 6- or 7-year-old.”
While using TikTok, I never saw examples of bullying or harassment. (Both of which are prohibited by TikTok’s community guidelines, as is sexually explicit content.) There are, however, a decent number of videos featuring teenage girls dancing suggestively — which, if you are a 31-year-old newspaper columnist and not a 16-year-old boy, is fairly unsettling.
A TikTok spokeswoman said in a statement that promoting safety and positivity on the platform is “our top priority.” She added, “we periodically add to and adjust our protective measures, policies and moderation efforts to support the well-being of our users.”
Last year, after two other apps owned by ByteDance were criticized by Chinese officials for promoting objectionable content, the company’s chief executive, Zhang Yiming, said that it would increase the ranks of its content moderation team to 10,000 moderators, from 6,000. The TikTok spokeswoman declined to say how many of those moderators work for TikTok, or whether content standards for American users differ from those for users in China, where famously strict censorship laws apply.
Free-speech advocates might bristle at TikTok’s Chinese ownership, and privacy hawks have raised questions about how the company handles users’ personal data. But perhaps because it is more heavily moderated than other networks, TikTok mostly feels safe and wholesome. Julia Alexander, a fellow TikTok convert at The Verge, called it “a rare social app that isn’t infested with hateful rhetoric.”