If Microsoft or another company buys TikTok before President Trump bans the Chinese-owned video app on national security grounds, it will acquire a giant community of devoted fans and a lucrative platform for selling ads.
It might be buying something else, too: a big population of users ages 14 and under. The minimum age for using TikTok is 13.
In July, TikTok classified more than a third of its 49 million daily users in the United States as being 14 years old or younger, according to internal company data and documents that were reviewed by The New York Times. While some of those users are likely to be 13 or 14, one former employee said TikTok workers had previously pointed out videos from children who appeared to be even younger that were allowed to remain online for weeks.
The number of users who TikTok believes might be younger than 13 raises questions about whether the company is doing enough to protect them. In the United States, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requires internet platforms to obtain parental permission before collecting personal information on children under 13. The operators of Musical.ly, an app that was merged into TikTok in 2018, paid a $5.7 million fine last year to settle accusations from the Federal Trade Commission that it had broken those rules.
TikTok declined to comment on the user numbers. In response to questions about the safety of younger users, a company representative referred to measures such as allowing parents to control what their teenagers see on the app and how much time they can spend on it.
TikTok and its owner, the Chinese social media giant ByteDance, have been in the cross hairs of the Trump administration, which is concerned that the app could help the Chinese Communist Party obtain Americans’ private information. Mr. Trump this month indicated his support for Microsoft or another American company to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations as a way to allay the security fears
But any deal for TikTok would require buyers to contend not just with political pressures, but also with issues that can become thorny at all social media platforms, including content guidelines, data collection practices and safety protections for children. The app’s large audience of young fans makes it a big draw for advertisers, but also invites extra scrutiny of its privacy safeguards.
TikTok asks for a birth date when users register an account. In the United States, those who say they are under 13 are allowed to use only a walled-off mode within the app in which they cannot share personal information or videos. Yet the concerns are that some under-13 users may lie to get around the age restrictions, and that the platform is not obtaining the required consent from those users’ guardians.