As the debate around TikTok continues to unfold, social media users are grappling with the layers of issues surrounding the potential ban of the popular social media app in the US and other countries.

“From national security concerns to data privacy and children’s safety, the implications of greater scrutiny of TikTok, and other social media companies, are just as important in South Africa,” says Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO of ESET Southern Africa.

The primary reason behind the US government’s interest in banning TikTok revolves around national security. Lawmakers worry that the Chinese-owned app, developed by ByteDance, could be used to collect and share sensitive user data with the Chinese government. An investigation by Consumer Reports, suggests that, as the fastest-growing social media platform in the world, TikTok gathers data even from individuals who don’t use the app or visit the platform’s website.

“This is because TikTok receives data from its partners who gather information about people visiting their websites. Other well-known platforms like Google or Meta (Facebook and Instagram) use the same strategy for advertising purposes,” explains van Vlaanderen.

“It’s crucial for users to understand the extent of the personal information they share, often unknowingly, when they use social media platforms like TikTok. This awareness can empower users to make more informed decisions about their online activities,” she adds.

Social media platforms, including TikTok, collect a vast array of data from their users. This data can include status updates, location data, personal interests, and even engagement on other social media platforms. “Companies use this information to tailor advertisements and recommend content, but it also raises some understandable privacy concerns,” says van Vlaanderen.

Data breaches are also not uncommon. For example, X (formerly Twitter) experienced a hack in July 2022, where 200-million user email addresses were posted on the dark web. Similarly, Meta was fined $1,3-billion (well over R25-billion) by European Union regulators in May 2023 for violating privacy laws by storing and transferring European Facebook users’ data to US servers.

“The risks associated with data collection and potential breaches means there is a definite need for people to implement robust data protection measures together with more transparency from social media companies,” says van Vlaanderen. “While stricter laws and regulations may help, consumers should still be vigilant about their digital footprints and take steps to protect their personal information.”

Another pressing concern about TikTok is its potential impact on younger users. The app’s addictive nature, potential exposure to harmful content, and risks of cyberbullying and mental health challenges are significant issues that parents are considering. Although TikTok has implemented features like different user experiences for those under 13 and content moderation policies, questions about the effectiveness of these measures remain.

Van Vlaanderen says that while TikTok is in the spotlight, many of the same concerns about children’s safety and use of social media apply to other platforms, too. In January this year, CEOs of Meta, TikTok and X went before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the United States to testify as lawmakers and parents argue social media companies are not doing enough to protect children from exploitation and harmful content.

“While local laws like Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) includes specific provisions for the processing of children’s data, it’s wise for parents to play an active role in monitoring their children’s social media usage,” notes van Vlaanderen. “Tools like TikTok’s ‘Family Pairing’ can provide some level of oversight, but parents should also educate their children about the potential dangers of sharing personal information online and boost their online protection with other reputable parental control technologies.”

Van Vlaanderen says social media users can take proactive steps to help safeguard their privacy and protect their information:

* Use strong passwords: Avoid reusing passwords across multiple sites and consider using a password manager to keep track of your credentials securely.

* Limit sharing personal information: Be mindful of the details you share on social media, such as your location, contact information, and personal interests.

* Disable location services: Turn off location tracking features on your devices to prevent social media apps from accessing your location data.

* Enable Two-Factor Authentication: Add an extra layer of security by enabling two-factor authentication on your accounts.

* Be cautious of links and downloads: Avoid clicking on suspicious links or downloading unknown attachments, even if they appear to come from friends.

* Use privacy settings: Adjust your privacy settings on social media platforms to control who can see your information and how it is shared.

As discussions about TikTok’s future in the United States and other countries continue, van Vlaanderen says the issues surrounding data privacy and user safety remain relevant for social media users everywhere. “Understanding the data practices of social media platforms and taking steps to protect personal information is a necessity in today’s digital age. By staying informed and vigilant, users can enjoy the benefits of social media while minimising the risks.”