Dear Kevin Mayer: Here is what parents want you to change at TikTok
Kids love TikTok. Parents, not so much.
Last week the popular lip-synching video app announced the appointment of a new chief executive officer: former Disney streaming chief Kevin Mayer. The exec, once one of the top candidates for the CEO job at the Mouse House, will also serve as COO of ByteDance, the Chinese tech company that owns TikTok. His new role won’t be an easy one—safety and privacy concerns have plagued the app over the past few years, despite its popularity with younger people. Now Mayer must “Disney-fy” TikTok, making it more family-friendly in the eyes of parents, without destroying what makes it so addicting with younger users.
What changes would parents most want the new CEO to make when he officially takes the role on June 1? We asked a few of them to find out.
Develop an age-appropriate filter
Even with a private account and a “friends-only” policy for sharing their own homemade videos, kids are still exposed to all sorts of other clips on TikTok. “They can still see all the videos of ‘randos,’” says Shelly Ryan, a teacher whose two daughters use the app. Several other parents, especially those raising young girls, also say they wish TikTok could provide a filter for age-appropriate content for their kids. As one parent told Fortune: “TikTok has become ‘sexy dance university’ for a lot of young girls.” (The company does offer a “limited” version for younger users, but parents complain that their kids don’t want to use it because it restricts too many features.)
Become a better partner for parents
It’s really that simple: Create more opportunities for dialogue with parents and allow them to voice their concerns. “The responsibility [to make apps like TikTok safer] is both on the app makers and on the parents,” says Micaela Birmingham, a New York–based writer-director and executive producer of a parenting site, ScaryMommy.com. “But we’re all asleep at the wheel when it comes to protecting our kids.” More dialogue between the two sides could be the first step in working together to make TikTok safer—and getting parents to be more comfortable with their kids using the app. “I’m hopeful that someone coming from an iconic brand like Disney can come in and do a better job at that,” says Birmingham.
Educate kids on the risks of social media
Birmingham likens the appeal of social media to a beach ball floating at the deep end of the pool. “Small kids see it and they want to jump in and play because it looks fun,” says Birmingham. “But they don’t know how to swim yet.” Just like the tobacco industry ultimately became responsible for informing the public on the health hazards of smoking, social media facilitators like TikTok could help to increase awareness of some of the dangers of their platforms, particularly for young users who don’t yet know how to make good decisions online.
Don’t sell our kids’ data (and if you do sell it, tell us)
Unsurprisingly, parents don’t want their kids’ private information to be harvested, stored, or sold to marketers. (Surprisingly, the American parents interviewed for this article didn’t feel strongly about whether this data lives on servers in China or in the U.S.—they just don’t want it to be saved and profited from.) TikTok is already the subject of multiple regulatory probes in several countries. In the U.S., it settled a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that the company illegally collected personal information from children. In short: Parents want the free app to find another business model, or at least to be more transparent about its existing one. “I just assume every social media company has all of your social information anyway,” says Stefania Pomponi, a mom who runs an influencer marketing agency.
Encourage less screen time
Sound completely counter to TikTok’s financial incentives? It is. But if the company wants to generate some goodwill from parents (who are ultimately—or at least theoretically—in control of their kids’ device usage), it might want to explore ways to promote its brand offline. “My 9-year-old doesn’t have a TikTok account primarily because he doesn’t have a phone,” says Pomponi, who also has a 15- and 17-year-old. “He doesn’t need to see another screen.” TikTok could host more real-world events (in a post-pandemic future) or find new ways to encourage kids to be creative while offline.