- What exactly is TikTok?
- Is it the latest social media craze in the UAE?
- What parents have to say
- TikTok influencers from the UAE and around the world share their thoughts
It’s 15 seconds of fame, literally. When 19-year-old Sandra John from Abu Dhabi joined the short video-sharing app, TikTok about a year ago, little did she know that she would be lip-syncing her way to fame. Now, with nearly 50,000 followers, the Abu Dhabi expat is among many youngsters who have found a platform to showcase their creativity and acting skills in 15-seconds-long video clips, to the entire world.
According to Sandra: “I joined the platform almost a year ago. I thought it would be cool to make some English musical videos. I realised I wasn’t very good at that, so, I started doing Malayalam and Hindi film comedy scenes. I wanted to make people laugh. Slowly people started recognising me and stopping me in public places to ask: ‘Hey, aren’t you @thatkochikari?’.”
I joined the platform almost a year ago. I wanted to make people laugh. Slowly people started recognising me...
What exactly is TikTok?
Before TikTok became TikTok, it was a Shanghai-based lip-synching app called Musical.ly. In 2017, ByteDance, which built the algorithms that power TikTok, bought Musical.ly to create a global platform. Last year in August, ByteDance merged Musical.ly with its short video app, which also operates under the brand Douyin in China.
TikTok itself is not available in China and its servers are based in countries where the app is available. According to an analyst firm Sensor Tower, since it first launched in 2017, the app has garnered more than 1.2 billion downloads.
According to a recent article on Business Insider: “Its Beijing-based parent, Bytedance Inc., is now among the world’s most valuable startups, with an estimated value of $75 billion (Dh275 billion) and an initial public offering expected this year or next.”
The latest in thing
Most of us use social media, however, TikTok is a complete subculture that has taken teenagers and post-teens by storm, leaving millennials in the dust of Instagram and Facebook. Statistics show that youngsters are increasingly turning to the video app as their go-to social platform. While most love to create, some are there, just to consume creativity.
UAE expat, Natalie Artelle doesn’t create videos but loves watching the videos. The 22-year-old student said: “TikTok gets you hooked to snappy videos you didn’t even know you wanted.”
Unlike other media-sharing app, TikTok videos get pushed on other users’ feeds regardless of whether they follow them or not. Bytedance uses powerful algorithms so that instead of sharing videos only with friends or followers, as is typical on Facebook or Snap, users can share them with the whole world, and build large followings.
The tools make video production simple, and celebrities, including Jimmy Fallon, often start challenges to draw people in.
Sreedevi Sujith, 27, said: “If you are creative, I think TikTok is the place to be. There are so many options. Some consider it as an option to learn and develop acting skills, while others use the platform to make creative videos.”
If you are creative, I think TikTok is the place to be.
Sreedevi, however, also highlighted one of the most important issues haunting the app makers, inappropriate content. She said: “The app moderators need to delete inappropriate content since children are also using the app, some videos are even violent.”
TikTok’s success didn’t come without its share of problems. Just when parents thought there couldn’t be any more social media apps for children to use... enter Tik Tok.
In an app where millions of videos are uploaded daily, it’s impossible for parents to filter out all the inappropriate or dangerous content.
Is my child safe?
Does this mean strangers have more access to my child? These are some questions parents seem to have.
Abu Dhabi parent Sindhu K Mathew, said: “I know about my daughter’s account and that she has many followers who love her for her goofiness. But, we are of course concerned about privacy. Especially some of the inappropriate language used in some videos and comments, it’s not suitable for young children.
“Another important issue is that predators are seeking to connect with children.”
... some of the inappropriate language used in some videos and comments, it’s not suitable for young children.
Her daughter, Sandra John said: “In my case, I actually ask my mum before I upload a video, so she can check the way I am dressed and my expressions.”
Riza Gochuico, Dubai-based Filipina mum said she knows about the app and said she was aware that two of her pre-teen daughters were previously using the app. However, she added: “There is so much content being shared on it, some of it may be inappropriate and it is not easy to keep track since videos keep loading one after the other. My children don’t own phones, so we were aware of what they were posting.”
There is so much content being shared on it, some of it may be inappropriate and it is not easy to keep track.
Her daughter Lara Francesa Gochuico, 12, joined TikTok when it was still Musical.ly, because her “friends were on it”. She said: “It was fun, my friends and I made lots of short videos. It was very popular within my cousins, friends and classmates. I also used the app to communicate with my friends.”
It was fun, my friends and I made lots of short videos. I also used the app to communicate with my friends.
Riza wanted to be aware of her childrens’ activity on TikTok so she joined the platform too.
But, not every parent is aware of their child’s social media behaviour.
When TikTok went viral in India, it failed to protect user data or prevent the spread of pornographic (illicit) content in India.
Scandal in India
In India, a court in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu on April 3, asked the federal government to ban TikTok, saying it encouraged pornography. Google temporarily blocked access to TikTok in its Playstore in India to comply with the state court’s directive until the issue was resolved with ByteDance.
In the US also, parents complained about videos promoting suicide on TikTok as well as minors performing suggestive dance moves. A BBC investigation in April found hundreds of sexually explicit comments on videos posted by children as young as 9 years. In July 2018, Indonesia also had temporarily banned downloads or restricted access to TikTok.
In February 2019, TikTok agreed to pay a record $5.7 million (Dh21 million) fine to settle US Federal Trade Commission allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under 13.
TikTok officially has a minimum age requirement of 13 years old to login and create an account on the platform.
And, Bytedance responded to complaints about TikTok and other apps by hiring thousands of content moderators in China, the US and other countries pledging to respect privacy. After its FTC settlement, TikTok tweaked its app to split users into age-appropriate areas.
TikTok ups its safety game
ByteDance is constantly addressing the safety issues faced by users.
A TikTok spokesperson told Gulf News: “Ensuring a safe and positive in-app environment for TikTok users is our top priority, and we constantly roll out measures to protect users against misuse. We deploy a combination of policies, technology, and moderation strategies to address inappropriate content or accounts, including offering a number of safety tools like restricted viewing mode, filters, and in-app reporting.
“Users can also easily report content or profiles that violate the Community Guidelines. In addition, we have multiple proactive approaches to detect potentially problematic behavior and take action including terminating accounts that violate our Terms of Service or Community Guidelines.”
According to an official document on safety features available on TikTok/Douyin, provided to Gulf News, the app developers seemed to have added features that looked at solving these issues.
The Screen Time Management feature offers, “a new way to give TikTok users and parents more options to select from in terms of the time spent on the app. The feature can be found in the Privacy and Settings, under the section Digital Wellbeing. Initially, TikTok gave users the opportunity to limit screen time to two hours per day. Now users and parents can select new time limits of 40, 60, 90 or 120 minutes and decide how much time they want to spend on the app per day. This feature is password protected, valid for 30 days. If users reach their screen time limit they will need to enter a password to continue to use TikTok.”
The Restricted Mode feature, “once enabled, this is an optional account setting that will limit the appearance of content that may not be appropriate for all audiences. The feature is activated via password, which will be valid for 30 days. This tool, powered by AI, let users take control of the content they watch”.
TikTok’s new comment control feature will allow users to better manage comments, by filtering those containing words they deem undesirable. Users can filter almost any keyword they want, blocking comments about race, religion, gender, politics and more. Users will be able to choose up to 30 words and modify them as they wish. The unwanted comments that contain those keywords will be filtered out automatically.
Another issue users faced was privacy. Sreedevi Sujith, who joined the app in May 2018 when it was still musical.ly in the UAE said: “Some users download other people’s vines and post it on other social networking sites.”
And, the fact that people from all over the world can view and comment on videos, added another complex privacy issue.
TikTok privacy features
According to the TikTok safety features document: “Users can choose to set an account as private. With this, only users approved as followers can see the user’s content. Creators can also choose to make a specific video private.”
Privacy settings allow users to decide who can follow them, comment and react on their videos, send them messages and create duets with them. The setting provides an option to avoid content from being downloaded as well as to create a list of blocked users.
Yousuf Al Mazroui, a 24-year-old TikTok influencer felt that even though the platform was new in the region, and the controversy in India had raised questions, uploading procedures in the UAE were very different.
Al Mazroui, whose TikTok handle is @yousefishere said that the UAE was a much smaller market compared to India and the posts were moderated based on local sensitivities.
“You cannot post inappropriate content in the UAE. Before you upload any video, it is reviewed by a TikTok client, he approves it. It goes in a very controlled manner,” he said.
Speaking about the controversy in India, Al Mazroui said that the market and society in India was quite different from the UAE.
“I have over 100,000 followers and on some of posts I have received over two million views. If someone in India would hear those numbers, they may not think it is very high. But you have to understand that the UAE’s users are a lot less, so in the UAE market, it is quite a lot,” Al Mazroui said.
He added that moderation made it a more appealing platform for businesses to showcase and promote their products and services. As an influencer, he has been approached by several eateries and lifestyle brands to endorse their products.
Speaking about his TikTok posts, he said: “Sometimes I want to give a message, sometimes I want to entertain people, sometimes I advertise something. You can make a nice amount of money on TikTok, it’s really fast. If you want to spread a message, you can do it very easily on the platform. Videos are shorter, you can keep swiping and you won’t get bored. You also find different kinds of content.”
Another TikTok user @mrdubai2020 with over 113,000 fans said: “TikTok is a platform which lets you be creative and reach so many people. It is the users who decide what to create and upload. I personally use the platform to make videos revolving around social issues, like the need to respect women or to help the needy. I use it to spread social messages.”
I personally use the platform to make videos revolving around social issues, like the need to respect women or to help the needy.
TikTok changing lives
For some, TikTok is more than an app. It has become an important part of their life. Here are two stories of influencers whose lives changed with the platform.
From a depressed teen to a rich influencer
Noah Peaslee, a US-based TikTok user today has over 1 million followers. However, the app changed his life and helped him overcome many issues he was struggling with.
The TikTok influencer shared his story: “I joined the app when it was originally musical.ly, back in December of 2016. I grew a quick following and soon had 10,000 followers in just a week. I had no idea how big this was really going to get and how this was going to turn into something much more than a fun app to kill boredom.
I’ve always suffered from mental illness, anxiety, and depression to be exact, and I was looking for a way to clear my mind and just have fun and that’s when I discovered the app...
“I grew up in a lower-class family, we never really had money and when my parents got divorced we had nothing. I was living with my mother at the time and we would have to go some nights without heat in the cold winters of Maine. I’ve always suffered from mental illness, anxiety, and depression to be exact, and I was looking for a way to clear my mind and just have fun and that’s when I discovered the app musical.ly.
“I downloaded the app and looked at a few videos and just put my phone away and that was it. A few months later I returned to the app and noticed people were posting their dance videos. Being a dancer myself, I hopped right on to the trend. My first video got featured to the world. It was amazing seeing my notifications blow up and my numbers go up. I continued to post. I started live streaming after I gained 50,000 followers, it was an amazing way to connect with your fans. “Eventually, my account was verified and my followers continued to grow. Live.ly (the live streaming app that was connected to musical.ly) came out with a new feature where fans could send virtual gifts that would turn into real money. I made my first $500 and was baffled and thought to myself, ‘how could a 16-year-old be making this kind of money?’. I then thought of all the opportunity this was giving me.
“I then began to livestream every day, getting tens of thousands of people in my livestream. I was making $400-$1000 (Dh1,469-Dh3,600) every single day. I bought my first car, when I was 16. In 2018, musical.ly renamed the app ‘TikTok’ and everything changed. There was now a ‘for you’ page where creators could get on if your content was getting good engagement by fans. I posted a video that now has 30.2 million views and 2.2 million likes. I gained over 150K followers within a 24-hour time span.
“Social media has become my job and my life. There is not an hour that doesn’t go by where I’m not checking my socials media accounts. Social media for some is much more than just a platform to share content. It’s a way to make a decent living and have fun while doing so. It may be stressful sometimes, it’s worth all of that in the long run.”
From stage-fear to acting
Another influencer, Manav Chhabra (@mr.mnv) from Punjab, India started his TikTok journey when he was 18, nearly four years ago.
The influencer with 4 million fans said: “This app has given me a lot. From a shy person who was unable to cope with stage fear it transformed me into a person who can now perform in front of a large audience.”
From a shy person who was unable to cope with stage fear it transformed me into a person who can now perform in front of a large audience.
Chabra, who completed his higher education in the field of law this year, said: “Now I will try to focus more on my career as a social influencer.”
He has now kick-started his acting career with two Punjabi music videos.
While privacy and security continue to be a challenge for those unfamiliar with the safety features, Chabra says, the focus should be on how to guide young creators on what to create and consume.
He said: “It is important to guide them as to what to upload and what to not. Watching vulgar content can also affect them at a psychological level but at the same time, these social media apps are important for them to explore and acknowledge there talent. We already have many examples of children who are making their parents proud and earning a lot of money through these apps, just by making videos on TikTok, which is great. But, I will also suggest these little ones stay alert about the security of there social handles and not become targets for cyber crimes.”
Influencer offers tips on how to stay safe on TikTok
Chabra specified: “Keep your double authentication always on, do not share your password with anybody, be alert from the fraud messages regarding verification or companies who try to violate influencers. And, make more positive content.”
And for parents, he added: “I definitely recommend parents to motivate their children in doing things they want to do and not restrict them. My parents have been so supportive throughout, they always encouraged me to make more videos, because they understood that it made me feel happy. Now that I am trying to make a career in this field, they are with me in my decision and are my top source of motivation.”
For those who want to be successful on TikTok, he has one suggestion: “Do not to make content for the sake of getting fame, make stuff that makes you happy and keeps you positive and most importantly, be humble.”
- With input by Huda Tabrez, Community Web Editor