How a computer scientist talks to her daughter about TikTok 

The debate over TikTok's national security risk is lost on many young users, except if your mom is a technologist focused on global threats.
Photo illustration by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Nadya Bliss and her 12-year-old daughter Coco have been talking about technology for as long as the two can remember. Nadya is a computer scientist who is also the executive director of the Global Security Initiative at Arizona State University. Technology and national security issues take up much of her time. While she loves tech and embraces many of its benefits, she is acutely aware of its darker sides, too. As a parent of a tween, the topic of social media — and especially TikTok — is commonplace in their household and among their friends. While many lawmakers and national security experts in Washington and elsewhere around the country are calling for an outright TikTok ban, those concerns are lost on the many millions of tweens and teens who spend hours on the app every day. Nadya and Coco, who is a sixth grader and among the minority of her peers without TikTok, recently talked about how the app — and the omnipresence of technology in just about every kid’s life today — is changing parenting and childhood. The following conversation between Nadya and Coco has been edited for clarity and length. 

Nadya: So, do most of the kids in your class have phones?

Coco: Yes, definitely. A lot of them since last year, some since fourth grade or even longer.

Nadya: Why do you think so many people have phones?


Coco: Well, eventually, kind of everybody has one, so everyone else wants one. It’s kind of like a peer pressure thing. And then there could be this situation where the parent just wants to connect with their kid.

Nadya: Like in my case, where the kid doesn’t really want to talk to me, but I missed you when you were at camp? What do you think about social media? And what do you know about social media from the conversations we’ve been having for apparently 12 million years?

Coco: Well, I know that it’s like a place to share things and post things. But then there are the likes and dislikes and comments, which can be really bad because sometimes you can share inappropriate things and just like bad things.

Nadya: Would you say everyone in your class has social media? Or what percentage of kids in your class?

Coco: So, there’s about 54 kids in my class. Most of them have social media. People who have social media kind of have a lot of social media, but the three main ones are TikTok, Instagram and BeReal.


Nadya: Do you have any of those apps? 

Coco: Nope. 

Nadya: So, why don’t you have them? 

Coco: Personally, I am not a fan. That’s my opinion. It’s just like we’re too young to be having this. I understand texting and stuff, but that’s different. Sometimes you don’t really know what you’re posting and then a weird old dude can find it and then you accidentally share your location.

Nadya: That is definitely a very creepy scenario, but that could possibly happen. You could by accident share your location and that’s dangerous. Are a lot of your friends on TikTok?


Coco: Yeah.

Nadya: You just made a really negative face. Is TikTok your least favorite?

Coco: Probably.

Nadya: Why?

Coco: Well, obviously, you’re the expert and you don’t like it. There’s the whole national security thing. 


Nadya: So, what do you think it means to be a national security threat? 

Coco: It’s probably just because it’s kind of collecting your data and the data isn’t protected. But there are other things. 

Nadya: Like what? Like how it affects people?

Coco: It affects the people who are on it. They start to change the way they talk. The slang they use. The way they move in general. If you’re on TikTok, you do TikTok dances. It’s just what you do.

Nadya: So, it just sort of sucks you in. 


Coco: I think it’s the endless scrolling ability and the short videos. The reason I like YouTube more is for the longer videos. It gives you like 5 seconds after one before recommending another one. The endless scrolling makes TikTok addicting. They have the algorithm. 

Nadya: You know what an algorithm is?

Coco: Yes because you told me. Basically, when you look at something, the app processes that data and then recommends things that are similar. So, that keeps you wanting to stay longer. 

Nadya: Do your friends know what an algorithm is? Do you think there’s enough education on how social media works? 

Coco: I don’t believe so. I think in tech class we covered it and then people freaked out that their iPads were listening. I was unfazed since I already knew about the algorithm. People may understand the extreme cases — like the creepy old man — but they may not understand the day-to-day aspects.


Nadya: It’s a bit creepy because it can push you into a particular direction. Like when you’re searching for something and then it nudges you in the direction of maybe something that could cause an eating disorder or something less sinister like encouraging you to buy Gucci. A whole thing about these platforms is that they essentially try to figure out a way to nudge you in certain directions and to keep you on the app. Potentially, it could encourage you to think a certain way or do something that maybe is not good or potentially adopt different viewpoints and ideologies that aren’t good. That’s a little scary. 

Coco: I think in China kids on TikTok see people getting good grades and things like that. We see people failing and hurting themselves and just doing stupid things. And there are the weird conspiracy theories. 

Nadya: Do kids talk about conspiracy theories?

Coco: A little bit. Most of it’s a joke. There was the whole Birds Aren’t Real thing.

Nadya: And you talked about that in school?


Coco: We talked about it in social studies. Basically, a guy said that pigeons aren’t real and then people started taking it seriously. And sometimes people like to post about how they found this bug and then found a microchip inside. Don’t worry, I know that’s not real. 

Nadya: Do you feel like you’re missing out? 

Coco: I don’t really feel left out because this is really my choice. And my closest friends aren’t really on social media a lot, and I just text them when I want to talk. 

Nadya: It’s true, we’ve never really put hard limits around technology, though you know I do have access to your phone. It’s always been kind of a constant conversation about how it works, some of the dangerous aspects, and why it’s important not to go overboard. And it seems like you’ve really taken those conversations to heart. Is there a social media thing that you want? You have YouTube, but you don’t really post. Is there something else you want?

Coco: One or two of my close friends were on TikTok but quit because I think the content was getting boring. I’ve thought about Instagram. The only reason I’d want it is because my friends are on it. But I can just text my friends if I want to connect. My friends do like Instagram chat. But that’s less secure than texting. 


Nadya: That’s true! Messages on Apple are encrypted end-to-end so nobody can read your messages if they are blue on an Apple phone to an Apple phone chat. Instagram has some protections but I’m not sure what they are. And then a third-party owns that data. So, even if it is encrypted, like who knows what happens with it. When do you think you’ll want social media?

Coco: Maybe when I’m a little older. I might like to see Meowed on Twitter to look at cats, or Evan and Katelyn updates or Taylor Swift. Maybe sooner for Taylor Swift — I heard she just launched an Instagram broadcast channel for the Eras Tour. I still probably wouldn’t post a lot.

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