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Surprise! TikTok App Defies Age Boundaries

Here's how you can use the controversial video-based social network that's popular with teens and younger adults

A man's hand holding a smartphone displaying the Google Play install screen for the video sharing social media app Tik Tok

Stephen Frost / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | Helen Polise used the extra time she had during the pandemic last year to learn TikTok, the wildly popular — and controversial — short-form video sharing social platform.

Before long, the 60-year-old New York-based producer of TV commercials was not only consuming TikTok videos but making her own, many to help other TikTok users master the nuts and bolts of the service. Under the TikTok handle @themuthership, Polise has some 331,000 followers and 1.9 million “likes” from people across the age spectrum.

The cool thing about the app is that “it just defies all the age boundaries,” she says. Indeed, while teens and people younger than 30 make up nearly half of TikTok users in the U.S, 11 percent are 50 and older, according to recent stats from the App Ape mobile apps analytics service that were published by consumer data firm Statista.

Why you might want to join

Some older adults join TikTok to bond with their kids and grandkids. Others just want to discover what the younger generation is up to.

"I mean, just watching teenagers dance when you're waiting in line for something to happen [is] a very uplifting form of social media,” says Katherine Black, 52, who works in Silicon Valley and is a huge TikTok fan.

TikTok is full of diversions that may help older folks, or people of any age, feel less bored or lonely. While it is not so much about meeting people as it is learning something, selling something or being entertained, you may make social connections along the way.

The wide range of celebrities on the platform include 52-year-old Will Smith (59.3 million followers), 49-year-old Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (37.4 million), 52-year-old Jennifer Lopez (13.6 million) and 83-year-old Sir Anthony Hopkins (2 million). Their official accounts, and those of other prominent people or organizations, are verified by a blue checked badge next to their names, similar to the way Twitter identifies verified accounts.

TikTok has no shortage of music, comedy and fashion, not to mention the adorable puppies and kittens you've come to expect on the internet. And yes, you'll find people trying to promote a cause or business. AARP plans to launch its own #fyp, i.e., “for you page,” in the near future.

TikTok users by age

More than 1 in 10 TikTok users are older adults, as of March 2021.

  • 10 to 19 years old, 25%
  • 20 to 29, 22.4%
  • 30 to 39, 21.7%
  • 40 to 49, 20.3%

Source: App Ape via Statista

TikTok has the stigma of being only for young kids doing funny dance videos, but it has truly transformed into something much bigger, “not only because the content on the platform has diversified to include something for everyone now, but most importantly because of its discovery algorithm,” says Shark Tank star Daymond John, 52, who has 129,500 followers on the platform.

"On other platforms, you need to build an audience to really get reach or put a lot of money in advertising,” John says. “But with TikTok, if you have a video that people like, that video could be seen by millions of people regardless of your follower count."

You can browse through a collection of silly but generally fun streamed videos, many found under the aptly named “#OddlySatisfying” hashtag, which has 2.5 million followers. As with any public platform, of course, you'll also likely come across content that will leave you aghast, including suggestive or foul language, or political views that don't match your own.

People often visit TikTok with a specific purpose in mind: to learn how to knit, garden, repair the dishwasher, find travel destinations or adopt new recipes. Cookingwithlynja, who describes herself as a “regular mom with killer cooking skills,” has 5 million followers. The chef, Lynn Davis, is a septuagenarian MIT grad and grandmother. It can be an addictive time suck.

Keeping it short

The length of the videos is one of the main things that sets TikTok apart from YouTube. TikTok recently raised the maximum length of a creator video from one to three minutes, and “live” sessions can go a lot longer. For now, only creators, as the people who post videos are called, with at least 1,000 followers can go live. And 15-second-long videos remain the norm, a chief part of TikTok's appeal.

"I like the fact that you can get these quick snippets, and your investment is only a matter of 15 seconds, maximum,” says veteran tech journalist Larry Magid, chief executive of ConnectSafely. The nonprofit site publishes The Senior's Guide to Online Safety.

Discovering what to watch

After downloading the TikTok app onto your iPhone or Android device and signing up for a free account, you will land on the for you page. It's where you find curated videos that are supposed to match your tastes, based on TikTok's recommendation systems.

The interests you expressed as a new user, the accounts you follow and the videos you share, comment on or indicate you like by tapping a heart-shaped icon, among other factors, determine your page. User tip: Be careful what you like so you won't give TikTok the wrong impression.

You also can add videos to your favorites or go a step further and download a video. Another strong indicator of interest: when you watch a longer video from start to finish.

The system adjusts based on the stuff you make clear you don't care about. You can tap “Not interested” on a video and go further by asking TikTok to hide content from a given creator.

TikTok occasionally will deliver a video in your feed that may not seem relevant or align with your expressed interests. TikTok says this is to help you stumble upon content you wouldn't normally see.


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Creating your own videos

TikTok won't pressure you to be a creator. But if you decide to produce your own content, press the + icon at the bottom of the screen to get started. TikTok videos are meant to be shot on your phone in vertical mode, also called portrait, an adjustment if you're accustomed to shooting in horizontal, also called landscape.

You'll find tools to add effects, filters and sounds from TikTok's large library of songs and sounds, though you have the option to add your own sound. It can be a bit overwhelming at first.

Sound can be synced up to the video. You can sample all the effects and filters before committing to using them. For dramatic effect, you also can speed up a video or go super slow. You can add captions. The level of production values varies greatly.

TikTok's general advice for creators is to think in terms of storytelling, whether you're offering beauty tips or demonstrating how to fix something. You can also take advantage of a Duet feature to build your video on top of another user's video.

Whatever you shoot, you must adhere to community guidelines: no violence, hate speech, harassment, nudity or graphic content. Users can report abuses.

TikTok also is allowing its creators to make money from the app. For some personalities, TikTok officials envision that charging for content might even become their livelihood. While Polise's previous individual TikTok videos remain free, she has created a separate $15 course with 17 videos as a tutorial.

Is TikTok safe and secure?

Plenty of people have chosen to steer clear of TikTok, fearing its Chinese ownership; parent company ByteDance is based in Beijing. For a time, TikTok became a political punching bag. As president, Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders directing that TikTok be removed from app stores, though the orders were thwarted through legal challenges and were rescinded under President Joe Biden. But the Commerce Department is keeping an eye on apps tied to China.

As it happens, TikTok operates in several major global markets, but China isn't one of them. ByteDance offers a different short-form video app called Douyin on its home turf.

TikTok says user data is stored on servers in the United States and Singapore and insists it has never provided such data to the Chinese government. It publishes a transparency report that details requests from governments around the world. According to the report, during the first three months of 2021, TikTok removed nearly 62 million videos for violating its community guidelines or terms of service. That represents less than 1 percent of all videos uploaded on TikTok, and more than 80 percent were removed before they received any views.

You'll want to check out the app's privacy settings as well. Among other safeguards, you can keep your account private so only users you approve can follow you and watch your videos. You can refuse to sync your contacts and Facebook friends. And you can stop third-party advertisers from using your videos in their ads — that switch is on by default.

What's more, while you'll always see ads on TikTok based on what you do on TikTok, you can flip a switch so TikTok won't target ads based on what you do off the service.

Newbies should approach TikTok like they do any other social network, Magid says. Read the privacy policy and be mindful if you post. TikTok has a “deep end and a shallow end, and you can easily wade in the shallow end with no experience and maybe decide later if you want to get in deeper by creating your own content,” Magid says. “There is absolutely no danger in lurking and looking, and as long as you use the privacy tools, there is very little danger in posting."

Edward C. Baig covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is author of Macs for Dummies and coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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