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On March 30, 2019, then 14-year-old Charli D’Amelio uploaded her first post to TikTok, a video of her lip-syncing with a friend. Less than a year later, D’Amelio appeared in a Super Bowl commercial and designed a TikTok dance challenge with Jennifer Lopez.
TikTok has allowed unknown users, many of them teenagers like D’Amelio, to go viral and become celebrity content creators overnight. The platform has experienced an unprecedented explosion in popularity, especially among those classified as Gen-Z—born after 1996—with 41% of its massive user base between the ages of 16 and 24.
But it’s not only TikTok’s secretive and addicting algorithm that makes the social media app special. Of all the major social media platforms spawned since Facebook, including Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram, TikTok is unique as a platform with a massive American user base that did not originate in the United States.
TikTok’s Chinese origins have placed the app in the midst of rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, highlighting user privacy as a potential national security issue.
In this investigative feature, Identity Review examines Gen-Z’s perceptions of privacy through survey data and interviews, particularly with regards to policy and digital identity implications. This first report kicks off with an in-depth look into Gen-Z’s views on data privacy and the TikTok ban imposed by the Trump administration in August.
The story of TikTok begins with two earlier iterations of the app: Musical.ly and Douyin. Musical.ly, founded in 2014, was a hugely popular short-form video app where users could create and share 15-second lip-sync videos. Douyin, another short-form video app, began to expand outside China under the new name TikTok. The app swept markets globally. Douyin’s parent company ByteDance later bought Musical.ly in 2018 and merged the app with TikTok.
Today, 95% of 13-to-17-year-olds in America have access to a smartphone, and 6 out of 10 American teens are on TikTok. The app’s trademark features—short-form, bite-sized content, catchy dance and music trends, the potential to go viral, and a highly accurate content curation algorithm that causes users to spend hours on the platform—have made TikTok a captivating and addictive platform.
On August 6, former President Trump announced an executive order that would block downloads of TikTok and WeChat from U.S. app stores. A subsequent executive order issued on August 14 would ban TikTok completely unless an American company bought the app within 90 days. In the executive order, Trump cited national security concerns over American users’ data being owned and controlled by a Chinese company. He also expressed concern at the possibility of the Chinese Communist Party broadcasting politicized media to millions of Americans. The ban was set to take effect September 20, but a last minute injunction granted to both apps by a federal judge allowed TikTok to remain available on the Apple App Store.
Based on data from surveys, research and interviews, there are several trends driving Gen-Z’s social habits.
In order to assess Gen-Z’s perspective on TikTok’s privacy issues, we need to first understand why TikTok has gained so much traction among Gen-Z. Every major social media platform taps into a deep human psychological need: Facebook connects people via their friends and interests, Instagram documents your most shareable moments, and Snapchat understands that there are some conversations that are best deleted the day after.
TikTok taps into the content creator wave that has swept the United States. A 2019 Harris poll asked 3,000 kids ages eight to twelve, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 30% of the respondents, the plurality, said that their dream career was to become a Youtuber. By lowering the barrier to entry for content creation and giving all users the possibility to go viral, TikTok engages more deeply with the aspirations of Gen-Z than does any other social media platform. TikTok’s connection with Gen-Z’s aspirations is one reason why TikTok users spend 46 minutes on the platform per day on average, the highest average use of time of any social media platform except Facebook.
As part of our study, Identity Review surveyed over 120 high school and college-age students to get their perspectives on the TikTok ban and data privacy. The ability for TikTok to spark the careers of young creatives was consistently cited by the respondents as a reason TikTok should not be banned.
Tianna Treichelt, a 22-year-old UC Santa Barbara graduate, expressed this sentiment in her survey response: “I think TikTok is a great way for people to express themselves and for creatives to be discovered.”
Dani Longoria, 20, was even more effusive in her praise of TikTok, “TikTok is quite possibly the best app to ever exist. While it has its flaws, it’s full of creativity and is a great outlet for people, especially during the pandemic.”
Survey data shows that TikTok is deeply integrated into users’ lives. As such, users overlook privacy concerns to enjoy the app’s personal algorithm and easy sharing experience.
Erina Widjaja, a USC sophomore, sums up Gen-Z’s view on TikTok succinctly: “I love TikTok, and the possibility of it being banned makes me super sad because it’s my only form of serotonin!” Tanya Chen, another USC sophomore, was more blunt: “It’s mental illness luv,” she said when asked for her thoughts on the app.
Given the strong positive attachment Gen-Z users have to TikTok, it is not surprising that only 11.6% of survey participants supported Trump’s proposed ban of TikTok from the U.S. Apple App Store.
Identity Review’s survey results show that despite widespread disapproval of the TikTok ban, privacy still ranks as an important concern to Gen-Z. Currently, Gen-Z TikTok users see banning TikTok as an overly restrictive action. But the survey data suggests that less imposing privacy protections may resonate with TikTok’s user base.
Out of 121 survey participants, just one described privacy as “not very important” on a scale of “not very important,” “somewhat important,” “important,” and “very important.” 53% of respondents described privacy as either “important” or “very important” to them.
Identity Review then asked users whether TikTok’s privacy concerns affected whether they would continue using the app. While 46% of respondents noted that they “didn’t care” about TikTok’s potential loose privacy protections, 54% of respondents did express concerns. Within that group, only 15% deleted the app due to privacy concerns.
Notably, survey results show that there are a number of Gen-Z TikTok users who believe that the users themselves should be in charge of evaluating potential privacy risks, not the U.S. government, even if these privacy concerns lead them to delete TikTok.
Lili Montes, a 22-year-old UC Santa Barbara graduate, responded, “[it] is our personal choice to be on the app as well as our personal choice to educate ourselves on the privacy and use of our personal data.”
What has become clear through this survey is the idea that Gen-Z does, in fact, care about privacy. Brendon McNerny, who helped launch TikTok in the United States and is CEO of Clash App, a creator monetization platform, noted in an interview that “one of the biggest things we’ve heard from our Gen Z creators is that they do care about privacy—not only for themselves, but for their fans on the platform as well.”
Identity Review asked respondents to rate the importance of privacy on a scale of one to eight. The results were surprisingly moderate: the average response rating was 4.4 and the relationship between how highly a user valued privacy and their decision regarding whether to continue using TikTok was decidedly varied. What is clear is that an overwhelming majority oppose Trump’s TikTok ban, and believe that users should be able to make their own digital security evaluations. With Oracle buying TikTok and Joe Biden elected the next president, it remains to be seen whether or not Gen-Z’s wishes will be heard, or if TikTok continues to become entrenched in our social and digital fabric.
ABOUT THE WRITERS:
Lydia You is a computer scientist from Princeton University living in New York City. She is a Tech Innovation Fellow at Identity Review covering the intersection of technology, internet culture and the future of digital media.
Quinn Barry is a Tech Innovation Fellow from Stanford University covering the next generation of financial identity protection.
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