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TikTok is facing scrutiny over how it handles users' private data. But the app is still popular with teens

Posted at 2:42 PM, Nov 14, 2019

Short-video social media app TikTok is known for videos of dancing, singing and jokes. The app’s popularity has skyrocketed this year, especially with kids and teens.

"It’s mostly younger kids,” Kendall Wheeler explained. Wheeler, who has been dancing since she was 3 years old, has more than 440,000 followers on the app. The 17-year-old dancer downloaded the app when she was 15 as a way to share dance — and other — videos.

Now, her content has expanded to acting, trends and other topics, and her image is attracting companies looking to sponsor or advertise their products with her.

“A lot more companies have been reaching out to me,” she said. “I’ve made a pretty good amount of money from just going live.”

Going live on the app and interacting with followers is the easiest way to make money on TikTok, and it allows for direct audience engagement.

“My friends are pretty much from TikTok and I FaceTime them all the time,” she explained. “My social circle is on TikTok.”

A survey of 2,000 people, ages 13 to 38, conducted by Morning Consult showed 13 to 16 year olds prefer TikTok over Facebook. With 17 to 21 year olds, TikTok is still popular, but not as much as other social media apps.

One scroll through the homepage and you can tell. Many content creators on the app appear to be younger than 18 years old.

The app is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. The app was scrutinized in October for how the public thought they were handling user’s private information. Two U.S. senators called for an investigation into national security threats.

“Any foreign-owned application, there has to be some concern,” Donald McLaughlin explained. He is a cybersecurity professional who worked with the National Security Agency for a few years. “You always have to be cautious when you’re dealing with a foreign country who might have some different data laws and different viewpoint on data."

TikTok fired back, writing a statement that they store U.S. user data inside the country, and that they are not influenced by any foreign government.

“The data is housed somewhere else in a legitimate place in the U.S. and Singapore,” McLaughlin said.

“When Kendall first started doing TikTok I was not supportive of it at all actually,” said Teresa Wheeler, Kendall’s mother.

Kendall’s mom now supports her daughter’s videos, and occasionally watches through an account she made.

“If anything bad happened then I would take real precaution,” Kendall said.

“Children or kids, they don’t know what they should and shouldn’t be doing yet. They might not necessarily understand the risk,” said McLaughlin, who has kids of his own. He said paying attention to privacy policies is the first step.

“Whenever you download a social media app, whether it be TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, you’re giving away some of your rights," he said. "The application is free for a reason."