TikTok launches new safety tools amid coronavirus: no more DMs for under 16s

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If it feels like you're the only person on the planet who hasn't downloaded TikTok during the coronavirus pandemic, well, you're probably right.

Whether you've logged on for the Andrew Probyn content, or you're hooked on The McFarlands, the app has seen a global download boom amid COVID-19.

With more families turning to TikTok for entertainment, the company has accelerated the release of new safety tools, including removing direct messages for users under 16.

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"The embrace of platforms like ours is providing families with joint tools to express their creativity, share their stories, and show support for their communities," The company said. "At the same time, they are often learning to navigate the digital landscape together and focused on ensuring a safe experience."

TikTok's Family Pairing tool, which will be rolled out over the coming weeks, will give parents more control over their kids' accounts. The changes are timed to "key life milestones" for digital literacy, and allow caregivers to curate certain aspects of the app.

In a nutshell, Family Pairing allows a parent to link their own TikTok account (yep, if you've resisted up until now - it's time), to their teen's and enable a number of controls. These include:

  • Screen Time Management: Controlling how long your teen can spend on TikTok each day. 
  • Restricted Mode: Limiting the appearance of content that may not be appropriate for all audiences. 
  • Direct Messages: Restricting who can send messages to the connected account, or turn off direct messaging completely.
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In addition, from 30 April, direct messages for registered accounts under the age of 16 will be automatically disabled. The platform has already banned sending images or videos  in comments or messages. 

Not interested in having your own account? Even without Family Pairing enabled, parents can help their teen set Screen Time Management and Restricted Mode by visiting the app's Digital Wellbeing controls at any time.

"We are committed to giving parents insight into, and control over, how their teens use TikTok and helping facilitate important conversations within families about the responsible navigation of digital platforms," the company said in a statement. "We believe these options promote a safer and more trustworthy experience for our users of all ages, but our progress in this area is also never finished."

Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer, who is the creator of Digital Nutrition, tells Essential Kids that the more control users have the better, "especially when it comes to features of 'safety by design'". She cautions, however, that removing the ability to direct message users under 16 won't remove problems entirely. "Those 'private' conversations may then just jump onto other platforms."

Brewer says she'd like to see more ongoing conversations about appropriate use."How does TikTok build capacity to understand this in its younger users and their parents - rather than just functional tools?" she notes. "The conversation and culture around use is what helps build self-regulation and critical thinking."

The new safety features come two months after doctors warned parents about the potentially fatal skull-breaker challenge, which went viral on TikTok prior to COVID-19. The prank left multiple teens in hospital, with one experiencing a seizure after hitting his head.