Tic Tok, China & Your Child

For the past 10 years, I’ve been examining most of the apps teens are using.  I’ve seen the evolution of MySpace and its purchase in 2005 by NewsCorp for $580 million dollars.

Conversely, I saw Myspace overtaken by Facebook  in the number of unique U.S. visitors in May 2009. The sad legacy of MySpace continued when Mr. Bring Sexy Back, aka Justin Timberlake and Specific Media Group purchased the remains of the site for $35 million and then sold it in 2016, to Time Inc. which was subsequently sold in 2018 to the Meredith Corporation.

To add insult to injury, CNN reported today that the site, which was already on life support, had lost 12 years of music that had been uploaded by users. You had a good run MySpace, but it’s time to hang up your hat next to your DiscMan, Palm Pilot and Nintendo 64.

But as I always told our kids during their teen years, “things change.” Everything of course except their dad’s penchant for highly starched white shirts and Panera coffee.

The apps and technologies of the past are often lost in the fog of simply living life. Needs change. People change and technology perhaps changes the fastest. This is perhaps best illustrated with Moore’s Law: Moore’s law is the 1965 observation by Gordon Moore that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every year.

Pretty boring stuff. You’re probably sorry you asked.

Although most of us could give a hoot about the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit  — it helps to explain why most of us can’t keep up with the technology that our kids and grandkids use. Although teens don’t know much about integrated circuits, it is the power of these technologies that enable the apps and video games that they use. With each advancement of the underlying technology, the more they are able to do.

Take for example Musical.ly . This app launched  in 2014 as a benign little distraction that allowed mostly teen and tween girls to post 15 second videos of themselves lip syncing to sweet Taylor Swift tunes with such urbane lyrics as, “Look what you made me do, Look what you made me do, look what you made me do.”  

However, much like society, the available songs from which the girls could select, morphed into other genres – more specifically hop hop. By 2017 the top songs were selected from the likes of Nicki Minaj, Drake, Jay-Z and of course everyone’s favorite  cannabis aficionado, Snoop Dog.So instead of Swift’s lyics,  “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head? girls might serenade their followers with lyrics such as  “I shitted on ’em” or “pissed on ’em.

Ah, few can turn a phrase like Ms. Minaj.

Considering that many of these kids were 13 or 14, or frankly 11 or 12, you can see that parents’ concerns were warranted.

By 2016 Musical.ly had over 90 million registered users, about 9 times more than they had had in 2015. By mid 2017, they reached over 200 million users.

Since Musical.ly had few if any parental controls, it became easy for strangers to reach children and children to reach strangers.  As Marilyn Evans wrote in her article on the Protect Young Minds site, an eight year old girl was solicited by a pedophile within 48 hours of the mom creating an account with her daughter.

Evans wrote:

“Within 48 hours a series of 4 notifications popped up in her account from ‘The Real Justin Bieber’.”

  • First message: “Who wants to win a 5 minute video call with me [Bieber]?”
  • Second message: “All you need to do is send me a photo of you naked, or of your vagina.”
  • Third message: “Lots of girls send me these pics all the time and I will never tell anyone you sent one.”
  • Final message: “Message me now!”

By the end of 2016, this once cute and creative app dissolved into a cesspool of cretins looking to take advantage of unsuspecting kids. As one law enforcement officer told me, “For pedophiles, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Then came Bytedance, a Chinese company that owned an app called Tic Tok, who, in an effort to increase their user growth, purchased Musical.ly They officially merged under the Tic Tok name in August of 2018.

SEE Local 12’s Interview with me concerning the Tic Tok App

ByteDance has had incredible success and is now worth $75 billion. In terms of stock value, it is considered by some to be the most valued startup in the world. According to App Annie this week, Tik Tok was the 4th most downloaded app in the Apple and Google Play stores

So Everything Is Better Now. Right?

Yes and no.  Parents had complained that Musical.ly lacked parental controls. Tic Tok listened and now provide controls such as:

  • Privacy & Safety Settings related to location sharing, private accounts, who can comment, etc.
  • Digital Well Being for Screen Time Management & a Restricted Mode with password protection

While these are great enhancements, parents often don’t take the time to talk with their kids – and then add the controls by using a password their kids won’t discover.

Case in point: I was speaking in another city about a week ago. To test the audience, I simply mentioned the name, Tik Tok. Over 600 middle school kids erupted with either yays or boos. Keep in mind, I said middle school kids of which only 1/3 were legally allowed to even have an account due to the Coppa Act. Don’t know what the Coppa Act is? Follow this link.

That said, following my presentation on the overall subject of social media, many kids came up to talk with me and tell me their stories. A few mentioned that social media was in some way a reason for their depression, while others told me about their sibling’s misuse of technology. However, waiting for me by the exit door were three girls. They asked why I was so negative about Tic Tok. I said, “Because much of the content is not appropriate for teens.” They agreed, but suggested it was nonetheless fun to see what other kids are doing.

Not to my surprise, the girls who ranged in age from 11-13 said that they were tired of adult men sending pictures of their private parts – and requesting that they do the same. Although they mentioned Tic Tok specifically, they later mentioned that the same had been true with Instagram. Click here for additional info on this Instagram issue.

The question we should be asking is, “where the heck are their parents?”

Having reviewed social media apps for so long, nothing generally surprises me. The downfall of AOL, Prodigy and MySpace will eventually befall Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and now Tic Tok.

But why do I think Tic Tok might remain and issue?

If we look at the long tail of online communication in the United States, all have been home grown in this country. And while we often complain about the private information that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg  consumes from that device in our hands, we at least think the information he shares won’t go to a foreign competitor/adversary such as Russia and China. (Overlook that little hiccup concerning Cambridge Analytica)

While the Cambridge Analytica kerfuffle shone a light on what information social media companies have on us – it perhaps did a better job of showcasing the issue of social engineering, i.e., the use of centralized planning in an attempt to manage social change and regulate the future development and behavior of a society.”

It perhaps is bad enough for a British company to illegally acquire psychographic information on 50 million users  to aid an American presidential campaign – but to provide the private information of our children to a company with direct connections, if not full ownership by the Chinese government — might be a lurking catastrophe for our country –or any country.

Through the artificial intelligence (AI) that makes Tic Tok work, the views of Tic Tok management, or in fact the wishes of the “more than patient” Chinese government can attempt to change the views and even morals of a generation of Americans.

Consider for the moment the rapid technological change of the last century and how propaganda correspondingly underwent a massive change. Consider Radio Free Europe which attempted to change the hearts and minds of the Eastern Europe, Middle Eastern and Asian people. Consider the radio that Lenin called “a newspaper without paper… and without boundaries.” It was much easier to send a radio signal than an army to convince the opposition to your ways.

The difference with the above examples is that those messages were meant for adults. Moreover, the radio didn’t have psychographic information about every listener. Additionally, the users of radios were not producing their own content that could literally be accessed be the entire world.

Images of your child dancing provocatively to Svrite, could ultimately end up in someone’s cloud account – only to be accessed years later when your child is applying for college, a job or running for political office.  (By the way, the Svrite song and lyrics are NOT for the faint of heart. However, there are hundreds of girls on Tic Tok lip syncing to the words.)

But this is the world we’re in. As adults — as a society whose adversaries have access to the most vulnerable among us, i.e., our kids  – we must understand the use of technology and its potential consequences — better than those creating the technology for our children.

Tic Tok has already been fined nearly $6 million for the collection of the private information of children under the age of 13. Whether they are an extension of the Chinese government or not, understand that all free apps tell us that they are collecting your private information and selling it. This information is embedded in the Terms of Use Agreement that all apps provide. In the case of Tic Tok, that is why their parent company is worth $75 billion dollars. Demographic and psychographic information is the currency of this era.

Most of you reading this article were weaned on CD-ROM’s and pagers. Some of you were thrilled when you first connected something called a modem to AOL and heard the shrill, almost alien sound of the device attempting to connect to a server far, far away.

Then there was the sound of YOU’VE GOT MAIL for the first time – and the thrill of sending messages through AIM, Yahoo IM or iChat.

This is a far different world than when you were listening to Third Eye Blind or Jimmy Eat World. Your kids are growing up with access to the world and the world having access to your child.

Things change. Including how countries wage warfare.

In the December 2018 article Inside China’s Audacious Propaganda Campaign, authors  Louisa Lim and Julia Bergin wrote extensively on how China is using media as a propaganda tool throughout the world. One such paragraph paints the picture:

“Since 2003, when revisions were made to an official document outlining the political goals of the People’s Liberation Army, so-called “media warfare” has been an explicit part of Beijing’s military strategy.”

One would not think that managing what your child does online would impact global politics. Certainly, one child has no impact. However, 600 million children providing both their demographic and psychographic information to a foreign government very well might be part of a new era of war and propaganda.

Tic Tok, Snap Chat, Instagram, Twitch and YouTube all have their place in the world of your child. But those too will change and be replaced by another shiny new object that gains the attention of this generation.

But at this point you’re probably thinking, “My DiscMan, Palm Pilot and Nintendo 64 are looking pretty good about now.”

To discover more about your child’s use of technology, and how you can help guide them through digital life, please consider ordering our book. All proceeds go to future research that supports our mission to educate families on their child’s digital tattoo.

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