What Is TikTok and Why Is It So Problematic?

December 12, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


TikTok, the incredibly popular social media app, has recently been under fire for possible censorship. On Nov. 25th, 2019  a TikTok user by the name of Feroza Aziz found that her video discussing human rights violations in China had been taken down. This was extra suspicious, considering TikTok’s link to the Chinese Government.

Hours later, the app re-posted Aziz’s video, claiming it was a simple error due to Aziz having violated the app’s guidelines days prior. However, this has left many examining the app a bit further. Is it really a way for China to collect US data? Or is TikTok as it seems, just a short-form video app popular with teens?

What Is TikTok?

So, what is TikTok? Like it or not, it’s one of the most popular social apps today, surpassing the monthly amount of users on Snapchat and Instagram. With this many people logging in per month, it’s no surprise that the app is, well, fun! 

TikTok originated as the app Musically but went through a massive rebranding after merging with ByteDance. The creators then took the best parts of Musically and added other elements from apps like Instagram and the fan-favorite Vine in the hopes of bringing in a wide range of users. 

Who Uses TikTok?

Today, the app appeals mostly to teenagers and allows them to lip-sync along to popular songs, or create whatever other video content they can in under a minute. 

This has led to a select few achieving fame through the app, and from there, turning it into a career. Charli D’Amelio, a 15-year-old, saw her follower count reach 7.5 million after posting videos of her dancing to popular songs in her bedroom. A matter of weeks later, D’Amelio helped open a Jonas Brothers Concert and now hosts meet-and-greets with her fans. 

Of course, TikTok is not a viable career path for most, but it does offer a platform for many artists and musicians to showcase their work and possibly gain exposure. One user posted a video showing of a hand-crafted journal with the caption “I woke up to three new orders! Thanks, guys!”

Despite the apps main purpose being entertainment, some people have transformed it into more. For instance, a Florida teenager is using the app to teach history. Brooke Pavel has managed to earn more than 3.5 million likes on her TikTok account all while teaching about things like the French Revolution in a commedic, theatrical way. 

And it’s not just history buffs. Doctors are hopping on to inform users about everything from sex education, to the dangers of vaping. Finally, teens find that TikTok not only gives them a place to express themselves, but a place to talk about important events, like LGBT issues, politics, and, of course, world-issues, like the ones Aziz covered in her post. 

How Is TikTok Being Problematic?

Sure, TikTok is fun and maybe even boasts some educational and financial benefits, but is all that worth the risk? 

Feroza Aziz isn’t the only one suspicious that the app could have less than savory intentions. In fact, this past October, two members of Congress, Charles E. Schumer and Tom Cotton, asked for the app to be investigated, claiming TikTok was a possible risk to national security. 

How could a kid’s app be putting the US at risk? Well, ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company is based in China. And with millions of Americans downloading the app, creating content, and sharing their information through the app, this could put American citizens at risk. 

For some, this isn’t speculation. At least, not for Misty Hong, who is suing TikTok and ByteDance for a breach in privacy and illegally accessing her data. 

Hong and her lawyers allege that the company takes all videos created in the app (some not even posted publicly or saved) and uses the footage to gather biometric and personal data on its users. The data is then sent to Chinese servers and domains the user has no knowledge of. 

Is TikTok Censoring Its Users?

Besides possible censorship from the Chinese government and data theft, TikTok boasts similar risks associated with other social media apps. For example, TikTok has become a hunting ground for sexual predators, allowing them to easily find and communicate with under-aged users directly. 

Since the app wants to keep you using it as long as possible, it takes into consideration the kind of hashtags you view,  the posts you like, and the accounts you follow. So when a predator follows a couple of teenage girls, TikTok presents more to them. The predator can even send direct messages to the child.

That being said, this is an issue on other forms of social media as well, which is why many sources urge parents to keep young children off the app. Besides, with the average American user being between 16 and 24-years-old, the app features a lot of explicit content not suitable for kids.

What Can You Do About TikTok’s Problematic Past?

Yes, the app does have some very strong cases against it, but does that mean we should all be deleting it? It’s hard to tell. 

TikTok offers a fun escape and creative outlet to billions, so it’s unlikely it will go away anytime soon. For now, the best course of action is to stay diligent when using the app, be careful what kind of information you share with it, and look out for other users while online. 

Most importantly, stay updated on the current investigations surrounding privacy, data breaches, and security. As time ticks by, we might find that TikTok, though fun, wasn’t so innocent after all.