With input from Tiktok's Head of Child Safety, Alexandra Evans
"Yes, Richard?", rolling my eyes as this will be his tenth question in succession, all of which so far have been a no.
"Urm, can I have Tiktok?"
"I don't think so, babe. You're not old enough."
"I am actually, cos like literally all my friends have it though, actually."
"Well thankfully Richard I'm not responsible for the rest of year 7"
I wander over to look over Richard's shoulder at his phone screen. He's sitting right in the far corner of our huge sofa, knees up to his chin and facing into the room so his phone screen is surreptitiously concealed from view. Suspiciously (as usual) he's looking at the app selection screen with nothing open, despite scrolling like mad just a few seconds before. So, I take a look at his open apps. 'YouTube Shorts'.
'This is a new loophole.' I think to myself. "Tom?" I shout up the stairs "...What on earth is YouTube Shorts now?"
"No idea, Jamie."
A little background:
Last week I (Daddy speaking) took the train down to London for a fascinating discussion with Tiktok's Head of Child Safety, Alexandra Evans and TV personality, Myleene Klass (or Myleeeeeeene as I endearingly like to call her, in the voice of Boycie's "Sit down Marleeeene". Myleene has become a star on Tiktok, with over 80,000 devoted followers of her heartwarming, family content. Pop over and follow here.
In our house, "PHONES OFF" is still the default solution when we find the kids exploiting their device allowances. Tom and I tend to use this 'all or nothing' approach but it has flaws.
For starters, removing anything from the boys naturally fuels more demand for it. That includes everything from sweets and biscuits, games consoles and games to mobile phones and apps.
Secondly, there's a sneaky grey area about how long phones go off for and we forget to communicate, and generally forget their phones or apps have been switched off.
Additionally, the boys' ask the other dad technique provides a convenient loophole, freeing up at least a few extra minutes of mindless scrolling before phones go off again, usually causing a minor riff between Tom and I in the process.
As a preface to our internet safety discussion in London, Alexandra - Head of Child Safety at Tiktok and a hands-on mum herself, eloquently described how our generation of parents (I guess we're talking 1970-1985 born parents like me) are the first to experience parenting children who own smart devices.
We came of age using phones as, well, an actual phone, didn't we? However our kids have only known full colour, touch-screen devices with games and videos and unrestricted access to complete strangers.
Here's the issue. I don't know about your family and kids, but our boys have far less opportunity to play outside and potentially meet strangers in the real world - the media, news and local Facbeook groups have taught us it's just not as safe out there nowadays. Meanwhile, ironically our kids are accessing platforms on their phones and laptops that, without supervision, can put them in front of and potentially in touch directly with millions of dangerous and threatening people.
I chatted to Myleene, a mum of five children in a large blended family, about our flawed approach. She recommends a gradual transition from 'policing' the kids' device usage to a position of trust. Myleene's a huge step ahead of us, in that she allows her children to use their devices, with boundaries but without confiscating them if there's an issue. Instead, her kids come to her with questions and problems.
This got me thinking, would this work here? Lyall and Richard tend to proverbially take a mile when offered an inch and we're genuinely worried about trolls, paedophiles and the boys' privacy. Remember, despite their confident façade, all adopted kids are vulnerable, trauma-survivors. Also, as adoptive parents we have the perpetual worry that their birth family or people from their past might reappear. So we're especially keen to keep their true identities; their names, schools, live locations and pics from their younger years, away from social media and the blog. The worry is magnified for adoptive parents in the public eye, like ours.
So, how might the transition from 'policing' to 'trust' work, given the boys' tradition of, well, completely taking the piss when offered a whiff of freedom? Our first thought is we could approach their app usage with a milder, 'surveillance' rather than heavy-handed 'policing with consequences'.
Speaking of which, Alexandra Evans from Tiktok has been busy with her team behind the scenes overseeing some clever improvements to the Tiktok app to help protect children and to help parents keep an eye on their kids while using Tiktok.
"Every parent has different priorities when it comes to guiding their teen's online experience - that's why we introduced our Family Pairing feature, allowing parents and teens to link their accounts and customise their safety settings based on their needs. It's one of a number of proactive measures we're taking to ensure we have strong safeguards in place for young people on our platform, alongside making under 16 accounts private by default and removing direct messaging for anyone under 16 too. We're also continuing to work with teens, community organisations, parents, and creators to further innovate to ensure that teens have a safe and positive experience on TikTok."
To enable Family Pairing on Tiktok, you'll need your child's device and a Tiktok account of your own on your own device, too. In the 'Me' section on Tiktok of both devices, select the three dots to access the menu and scroll down to 'Family Pairing'. The on-screen instructions will guide you through the setup. It's very easy.
Tiktok Family Pairing works well and it's very intuitive for a parent to navigate. If you've used Google Family Link or Qustodio it'll feel familiar and if not, you'll get used to it very quickly.
But, and I don't mean to be pessimistic or negative, Family Pairing is most useful within families whose kids are already trusted to use their phones responsibly. This is because there are loopholes that allow kids to switch off Family Pairing and continue as before. Knowing how sneaky our boys are, this is almost definitely something they would explore and discover very quickly. Failing that, kids can still set up new accounts with very little or no verification to prevent them from doing so and avoid their parent's supervision that way.
Despite Family Pairing, a famous dad blogger friend of mine told me about his recent experience of being unable to have his pre-teen daughter's multiple accounts closed down, despite several attempts at reporting and contacting Tiktok. If the UK's #1 dad blog/creator with a large following can't get through and find a solution, I can only imagine how difficult it would be for anybody else.
Tiktok have a mixed reputation when it comes to child safety. As a very fast-growing platform (I think they mentioned billions of users) at just three years old it's not surprising Tiktok are focusing their efforts on tightening up on safety. Our generation's kids are discovering the benefits and appeal of Tiktok's fast entertainment and it's only going to become more and more popular. I honestly believe Tiktok are trying to help us. But no matter how hard any platform tries, pre-teens will access social media with or without their parents' permission or knowledge. This will inevitably result in more opportunity for preditors, trolls and other wronguns.
Never-the-less, bravo to Tiktok for investing time and development into this. These developments will inevitably arm parents with extra confidence. As a keen social-media-consumer myself, I can see Tiktok are leading the way and hopefully other social media platforms will follow suit.
We're going to be watching very closely to see what other protective measures Tiktok and their rivals deploy in the coming months.
Ultimately though, unless social media apps require actual verification of an applicant's ID, which would be far too time consuming and restrictive for developers and users, social media will always be somewhat uncontrollable. It's down to us - the parents, to get to know the apps our kids use and to be there when things go wrong. When we're familiar with safety settings and the ways people use social media apps, we're far better armed to help when our kids have problems.
What's next for our family in the world of social media, apps and the kids using their phones? We're really not sure! It's a minefield. I guess over the next year as the kids enter their teens we will have to adapt and allow a little more freedom, with boundaries.
I just want to say a huge thank you to Alexandra and Myleene, and the lovely team at Tiktok for inviting me to their online safety discussion. Stay tuned for the (re)launch of Daddy & Dad on Tiktok in the new year!