After the Senate passed legislation to ban TikTok from government devices, the future of the app is once in peril. But some schools have used the app for student assignments, raising concerns about what is being promoted to children, and how their data is being stored.
Parents Defending Education (PDE), a parental rights organization, highlighted at least 15 schools, school districts and education departments across the country that have promoted TikTok in school assignments or competitions.
The Connecticut State Department of Education provides teachers in the state with multiple activities involving TikTok. One activity example advised that students "Make a claim: should someone use the term Latinx? Why or why not?" using TikTok.
An assignment at Whittier Union High School in California directed students to send "a TikTok that makes you LAUGH." The assignment said students should not include bad words or nudity.
Another chemistry assignment, from Peoria Public Schools in Illinois, instructed students to "Create a flipgrid or TikTok video explaining what classification five different substances around your house fit into."
Parents Defending Education (PDE) President Nicole Neily told Fox Digital that parents have every right to be worried about the app, especially because they know so little about how it actually works.
"I do not want my child to be put in a situation where they are obligated to download an app of which I have no control over what they have access to and be forced to use this platform as a component of their grade," Neily told Fox News Digital.
One example Neily gave for avoiding the platform was a particularly contentious one: gender ideology on TikTok. "If students are being bombarded with messages about gender identity over and over and over again, in children’s minds, frankly, it normalizes it," she said.
Neily summed up her concerns about TikTok in a single sentence: "What do our children see and how will that be used against them in the future?"
Neily also explained that parents are often not aware of the kind of content that goes viral on TikTok, even though they feel dubious about the platform. According to a recent PDE poll, over two-thirds of parents "are not comfortable allowing their kid to use TikTok without adult supervision, including 73% of parents aged 18-34."
But the concerns are not only about inappropriate content on the platform, but also center on the content creators themselves. Bloomberg Businessweek recently released a profile on "TikTok’s problem child" Jenny Popach — a 15-year-old "TikTok star" who makes "hypersexual posts." Some of her videos involve her twerking "in string bikinis," doing "body rolls in hot pants" and using innuendos in her video captions.
She also has 7 million followers and counting on TikTok.
A TikTok spokesperson told Fox Digital that youth safety and privacy was a top priority for the platform. "One of our most important commitments is supporting the safety and well-being of teens, and we recognize this work is never finished. We continue to focus on robust safety protections for our community while also empowering parents with additional controls for their teen's account through TikTok Family Pairing."
The app also poses potential national security problems, warned Vanderbilt Professor and cybersecurity expert Douglas Schmidt.
"The TikTok app collects a lot of information, above and beyond what it needs," Schmidt said. That’s because on TikTok, nothing is truly private. "[TikTok] collects things like device location, calendars, contacts. There’s also concerns that the app itself may be written in a way that allows it to take control of the [user’s] phone."
"TikTok hounds its users relentlessly into providing and sharing more than they may want to share," Schmidt said.
Evidence has also emerged that there has been "collection and usage of the data by people who are probably part of the Communist Party," Schmidt said.
Specifically, different categories of users on TikTok have different concerns. "If someone could be identified as being a member of the military" or "law enforcement" or some other kind of sensitive job, "then they’re being tracked. Their locations are being tracked. Their usage patterns are being tracked. Their interests are being tracked."
Schmidt emphasized that while other apps like Facebook and Instagram have access to personal data on users, the primary concern with TikTok is "who has that information and what are they doing with that information."
When asked how the U.S. government could respond to the threat of TikTok short of banning it entirely, Schmidt said the simplest way was to "force a sale of TikTok" and allow Oracle, an American company, to take control over the Chinese-owned platform. It was a proposal that former President Donald Trump made in 2020 and which President Biden voided in 2021.
A TikTok spokesperson told Fox News Digital the company is actively engaging with the government to resolve these concerns.
"For more than two years, TikTok has been engaging with the U.S. Government on solutions to address all reasonable concerns about TikTok in the United Sates," the spokesperson said.
We believe those concerns can be fully resolved, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. is currently considering a comprehensive solution to do so."
TikTok is currently awaiting the Justice Department's decision on a possible compromise which will decide whether the app can continue to operate in the U.S.
But what are the stakes if America does not push back on TikTok's social media dominance? Author of The Coming Collapse of China, Gordon Chang, told Fox Digital that the threat of TikTok was "existential" for the U.S.
"TikTok sends all the data that it collects from [the] user’s phone to Beijing. Beijing, therefore, can use that to learn about people, which means it can intimidate" or even "blackmail" them, he said.
"China is hoovering up the world’s data, and TikTok is one of the means it uses to do that," Chang said.
Chang also noted that China uses the TikTok algorithm to promote Communist Party "narratives" to the outside world.
Those "narratives" have real world consequences, Chang explained. "In 2020, there’s reporting that Beijing used TikTok to foment violence on American streets, which is also an act of war."
And that's only the beginning of TikTok's corrosive effect on American society. "TikTok has been glorifying drug use, which fits in with China’s fentanyl campaign to kill Americans," Chang said.
But TikTok’s algorithm is the real danger, Chang said. "In the last months of the Trump administration when they tried to arrange a sale of TikTok to American interests, the deal cratered not over price but over control of the algorithm."
TikTok's algorithm is powered by what Chang called "the world’s most sophisticated A.I," also known as artificial intelligence. "TikTok knows what you like and it knows what you don’t like, and it knows that better than any other social media app."
It’s a combination that is not only "powerful," Chang said, but extremely "addictive." That makes TikTok dangerous and worth banning — but not only on government devices. "There should be a ban on TikTok in the U.S. as long as it’s owned by ByteDance or by any other Chinese party," Chang said.
Chang also pointed out the clear double standard in tech regulation between China and the U.S. "China does not allow American apps in China, so why does America allow Chinese apps in the United States?"
The answer to that is the Washington, D.C. foreign policy establishment, Chang argued. "We have a foreign policy establishment that believes we can cooperate with China. But I don’t think you can believe that you can cooperate with a regime that seeks your destruction. And China seeks the destruction of the United States. We need to be clear about this because if we’re not, we can’t defend ourselves. If we can’t defend ourselves, we’re going to lose our country."
And while some have called for an outright ban on TikTok, it would be difficult to do. Former Chief of Staff to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Chuck Flint, told Fox Digital that the movement to ban TikTok was an uphill battle.
"TikTok is harmless fun to a lot of consumers," Flint said. And consumers means advertising opportunities for big business, with corporate America spending roughly "$6 billion a year" to get their products in front of an audience of primarily young people between the ages of 10 and 29. Another problem is that some American politicians have legitimized the platform on the national stage, especially since "Biden invited TikTok influencers to the White House last winter for a briefing on the war in Ukraine."
But when asked if a ban of TikTok on government devices was enough, Flint was emphatic. It's a start, he said, but ultimately "it's not enough."
"The government needs to ban it immediately," Flint said. In China, he added, tech companies are "typically fused with the government and also with the military," presenting clear national security concerns for millions of American TikTok users.
The numbers on TikTok use in the U.S. are even more striking. Flint said that some 85 million Americans use TikTok every month, and roughly "50 million" of that group are between the ages of 10 to 29. In other words, parents who allow their children to use the app make up a considerable percentage of TikTok users in the U.S.
So in the end, it's American youth that suffer most from TikTok's data siphoning, Flint said. "That’s really the danger. A generation of Americans [is] going to be exposed to potential manipulation" and "blackmail."
"Those are our future leaders," he added.