September 20, 2020

A Third of TikTok’s U.S. Users May Be 14 or Under, Raising Safety Questions

The law stipulates that if internet services have “actual knowledge” that a visitor is under 13, they have to obtain parental consent or else delete the user’s personal information. The F.T.C. said on its website that such knowledge might come, for instance, from a child’s posting information online that reveals his or her age, or from concerned parents’ notifying the platform that their young one is using it.

Critics have argued, however, that this standard creates an incentive for online platforms to willfully ignore the issue of whether their visitors are underage.

Josh Golin, the executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said TikTok had a duty to investigate if its own systems were indicating that so many users might be under 13.

“I would argue, once their systems have indicated to them that a user is likely under 13, that they are past the point where they can bury their head in the sand, that their legal obligation has kicked in,” he said.

Angela J. Campbell, a law professor at Georgetown University who is on the advocacy group’s board, said, “You could argue: Well, they’re not 100 percent sure” that those users are under 13. “But you’re never going to be 100 percent sure. Given that there’s that many under 14, it seems inconceivable to me that they could claim at all that they don’t know this.”

In May, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood was one of 20 groups that complained to the F.T.C., saying that TikTok was flouting its agreement with the agency.

According to the data seen by The Times, TikTok’s youthful demographics in the United States are echoed in Western Europe, where the app is also popular.

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