When Navigating the Internet, "Stop, Think, Decide, Act"

February 9, 2022

As a mother, educator, and researcher, I care deeply about the impact of technology and media on young people. When I started my career as an elementary school teacher, I developed a strong desire to understand the psychology of kids and teens. That led me to earn my masters and doctorate from Harvard University, where I focused on adolescent psychology and media with a lens on healthy social development.

Eventually I transitioned from academia to entertainment media. And today I'm the Minor Safety Policy Lead at TikTok where I can apply my passion and understanding of adolescent development and child safety to build a product that honors the lived experiences of teens. This feels especially important today as more of our lives have moved online since the start of the pandemic.

As we learn more about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the well-being of minors, a recent study found that teens have experienced disruptions to their social routines, education, and access to healthcare, as well as to their sense of safety and security. We want to be a part of the solution and make things easier for families, which is why we offer parents and guardians the tools and resources they need to play an active role in their teen's digital journey. With that in mind, there are three immediate steps platforms can take to better support families and minors online.

First, platforms must listen. We know how important it is for teens to feel heard. Yet we often leave them out of conversations about digital literacy and safety even though the majority of parents recognize their child fully understands the need to be safe online. Teens know the type of support they value most from the trusted adults in their lives and, by giving them a seat at the table, we can make informed decisions about the tools we provide them and their families.

One way we've done this at TikTok is by expanding our Family Pairing feature to offer both parental controls and recommendations for caregivers on how to approach digital literacy and safety conversations. We partnered with experts at Internet Matters to facilitate conversations with hundreds of teens and caregivers from various backgrounds and countries to develop these insights. Through our partnerships, we actively work to reach parents, guardians, and educators. While it doesn't hurt to know the latest dance routine or pop culture reference, teens tell us that they need help with the basics - like knowing a parent is available to talk to them about their digital life to begin with.

Second, platforms must recognize that every unique family deserves to be equipped with easy-to-use tools that allow them to customize their experiences in ways that are most comfortable for their individual family. FOSI research found the majority of parents wish they had more control to set content and screen time restrictions on their teen's device. Our Family Pairing feature empowers parents and guardians do exactly that by enabling them to link their TikTok account to their teen's to manage a variety of content and privacy settings, such as setting screen time limits or disabling direct messages. We encourage families to discuss these features with their teens, and explain why they choose to turn them on. Families can also learn more about our default safety settings for teens - like making accounts belonging to 13-15 year olds private by default - in our family toolkits, developed in partnership with FOSI.

Third, platforms must act on the insights we are learning from experts, parents, and teens themselves to ensure we're providing the right tools and a safer environment. To that end, last year we launched a global project to better understand young people's engagement with potentially harmful challenges and hoaxes.

Two things stood out to us in the research: The first is that young people want help understanding how far is too far. While just .3 percent of teens said they had taken part in an online challenge they categorized as very dangerous, teens want clear signposts for when behavior goes beyond safe boundaries, and they want more support from trusted adults in their lives. The second is that when people see hoaxes on the internet, their natural human reaction is to share the hoax. This sharing - even with good intentions - can have a harmful impact on teen well-being.

We understand assessing online challenges and hoax warnings can be difficult, so we developed an easy guide for teens and adults to use when they come across something dangerous online. For teens, it sets out for simple steps to help them assess risk. First, stop: pause for a moment. Second, think: the guide provides a series of questions, like "is it safe?" and "is it kind?" to encourage critical thinking. Third, decide: if it's not safe, or you're not sure if it's safe, don't do it. Fourth, then, and only then act. This might be doing the challenge or sharing the information. If it isn't, we encourage our community not to share it and report it instead. For caregivers and educators, we offer tips on how to approach this difficult subject.

It's not enough for platforms to create tools and resources. We must stay attuned to what young people and their families are thinking and feeling, and work alongside parents and educators to empower the next generation of internet users. There's no higher priority than this at TikTok.

Written by

Tracy Elizabeth

Tracy Elizabeth is TikTok's Head of Issue Policy, Trust & Safety. She oversees the Minor Safety, Integrity & Authenticity, Harassment & Bullying, Content Classification and Applied Research teams to ensure TikTok's policies are designed to keep youth safe and to catalog content based on age-appropriateness. Tracy holds a doctorate in Adolescent Development and a masters in Risk & Prevention from Harvard University. Prior to TikTok, Tracy managed Netflix's Kids & Family Metadata team and helped establish Netflix's Global Maturity Ratings department. She is a former elementary school teacher, turned entertainment tech enthusiast. Tracy specializes in designing media that bolster kids' and teens' social, emotional, and academic well-being. Most importantly, Tracy is the mother of a little girl who is growing up in a media world.