How TikTok tempts kids to spend hundreds of pounds on virtual coins to pay ‘online celebs’

TIKTOK is enticing young kids to buy virtual coins with real money to pay their favourite influencers.

Experts told Sun Online that TikTok's app design and peer pressure hooks users into paying for "coin bundles" that cost up to £99.99 a go.

Concerns over TikTok are growing, with recent investigations exposing the popular app's deadly pranks, sexualised clips and community of predators.

This is why we launched TikTok Time Bomb – a series to raise awareness of the potential dangers on the app.

But TikTok also has another sinister trick: "coins". It's virtual cash bought with real money to "reward" top vloggers for creating videos.

Prices vary but at the time of writing, a 65 TikTok coin bundle costs £0.99. And the most expensive TikTok package gets you 6,607 coins for £99.99.

Other available price tiers include £4.99, £19.99 and £48.99 coin bundles.

These coins can be gifted by users to their favourite TikTok influencers – often exchange for a "shout out" on their videos.

Influencers receive the currency as TikTok Diamonds, which can then be converted back into real money through PayPal.

How TikTok tempts your kids with coins

This convoluted system is designed to make it easy to forget you're spending real money, experts say.

"Following our research on online gambling, spending money online may look less real," said Professor Raian Ali, who has lectured at the University of Bournemouth and the Hamad Bin Khalifa University.

When TikTok users check their balance, they're offered the opportunity to "recharge" their balance with real money.

"With the visual effect, e.g. the shiny colours, and the ease of completing a transaction – combined with peer pressure and the need to reciprocate when an influencer has fulfilled the demand of the audience – spending money on TikTok can be a hasty action," Professor Raian told Sun Online.

It's similar to eating chocolate or cake without thinking of the sugar inside, he explained.

We cave in due to temptation and low self-control – and TikTok coins create a similar effect.

TikTok time bomb

  • TikTok has spread like digital wildfire, snapping up over 1.5 billion users since its global launch three years ago — including millions in the UK. 
  • On the surface, the world's fastest growing social media platform shows short clips of  lip-syncing to songs or showing off dance moves but there’s a far more sinister side. 
  • It’s become a magnet for paedophiles as well as a hotbed for violent and extremist content, with TikTok predators exploiting the platform's young user base and lax security to prey on the vulnerable.
  • We've seen kids as young as eight being groomed on TikTok, while other creeps take advantage of young girls posting sexualised content of themselves on the platform.
  • And that's especially worrying on a site which is attracting millions more children every year, with 53 per cent of kids now owning a smartphone by the age of seven.
  • That's why we launched our TikTok Time Bomb series — to make sure parents are aware of the risks their kids are being exposed to, and what they can do to better protect them. 
  • We also want TikTok to better moderate its content so that its not being left to kids to protect themselves online.

"Similar to new suggestions of putting a photo next to a cake explaining how many running hours one needs to burn it, we would suggest similar awareness measures for spending money online where the user is indeed nudged to think of the real value of the money spent," Professor Raian said.

"For example a chart showing how much they spend so far in an easy and accessible way and how this equates to their items of interest.

"This has to be done in a delicate way as people might indeed choose to pay for entertainment."

Paying a TikTok influencer is just like tipping a street performer in real life, Professor Raian explained.

But there's a key difference – the TikTok app itself.

"The difference is that the online space entices quick actions and is much more personalised and intelligent in matching a person’s interest, through analysing their browsing habits and previous actions," the professor told The Sun.

"It is like having a selling person who knows you for years and know when you are likely to purchase and what language you should be approached by."

TikTok recently changed its rules to forbid under-18s from buying coins.

But it's very easy for children to bypass these age-checks – as The Sun recently revealed.

It takes just seconds to enter a false age and gain access to the worst TikTok has to offer.

Take control of TikTok – change these settings now

Parents should do the following immediately…

Go private:

  • Head into Settings > Privacy and Safety and look for the Discoverability heading at the top.
  • Under that you'll see a setting called Private Account. Toggle this on.
  • TikTok recommends your page to lots of other users to improve video circulation.
  • Switch the setting off and the account will no longer be recommended to other users.

Shut out weirdos:

  • In Privacy and Safety > Safety, you can prevent other users from interacting with you.
  • Most of the settings are on Everyone by default, but can be changed to Friends or Off.
  • You can prevent interactions on comments, Duets, Reacts, users seeing which videos you've liked, and also messages.

Restricted Mode ON:

  • Restricted Mode tries to limit age-inappropriate content from appearing for children.
  • It's not perfect, and works through using computer-scanning systems – so some dodgy content will inevitably be missed.
  • It's also possible to set a passcode to prevent your child from changing this setting later on.
  • You'll find this in Settings > Digital Wellbeing > Screen Time Management.

TikTok superstars 'exploiting' children

Last year, a BBC investigation found that several influencers were promising to share their phone numbers with fans in exchange for gifts.

One girl, 12, speaking under the false name Claire, said she regretted spending £100 to get her favourite TikTok star's phone number.

Worse still, Claire claims that the TikTok influencer never even answered his phone.

She claimed to have sent TikTok creator Sebastian Moy a £48.99 "drama queen" gift to show appreciation for his videos.

He then allegedly asked for another gift in exchange for his personal phone number.

The US star has 5.5million fans on TikTok, but hasn't actually broken any of the app's rules.

Some creators routinely offered personal messaging details and phone numbers in exchange for gifts

The BBC monitored "dozens of live streams" in which app stars asked fans for gifts over a 10-week period.

In exchange, creators promised shout-outs for fans on their live-streams, and even offered to follow fans back on social media.

One creator is said to have promised to talk to a fan on Instagram "for a week", and received three gifts worth a total of £147.

"Some creators routinely offered personal messaging details and phone numbers in exchange for gifts," the investigation explains.

"The BBC also found a group who scoured the app for people giving gifts and then contacted them directly asking for money in exchange for 'likes' and 'follows'."

One parent of a TikTok user found her daughter, 11, had run up a bill for £240.

"I was shocked when I found out what the money was spent on," she said.

"I said to my daughter, 'So you don't actually get anything for it?' and she said, 'No.'

"Adults should know better. And even other teenagers should know better – that you do not ask children for money."

Another TikTok fan named Kelly admitted spending £500 to £600 on digital gifts, and said she felt "exploited".

The BBC investigation revealed that Polish twins the Neffati brothers – based in Blackburn – regularly offer to follow fans online for £49 gifts.

They even promise to write fans' names on their heads if they send multiple gifts.

The pair have amassed 8.5million followers on TikTok in six months.

Speaking to the BBC, they admitted receiving regular gifts, and said they sometimes feel guilty if the fans are young.

"We don't like it when our gifters are young, so basically we ask them if their parents know about it," they said.

"But we can't stop them. We can't stop it. We are going live not only for the money but we are going on the live to get more audience."

TikTok coin scams are targeting kids too

The TikTok coin phenomenon is also fuelling a wave of online scams.

Just like Fortnite V-Bucks, TikTok coins are incredibly tempting for teens – and costly, too.

This is driving youngsters to look for cheap or free ways of acquiring TikTok's virtual currency.

Satnam Narang, a cyber-expert at security firm Tenable, said offering online freebies is "one of the oldest tricks in a scammer's playbook".

"On TikTok, scammers create accounts to follow users or comment on videos to draw their attention to their profiles," security expert Satnam said.

"While they operate differently in some ways, all of these websites have one thing in common: they ask you to download an application."

Users will then be asked to run applications for certain amounts of times "to unlock content".

Often this results in users handing over private information, or paying for subscriptions and downloads.

Many of these apps will even include a disclaimer page that warns of possible charges.

"This is likely a way for the scammers to absolve themselves of responsibility for directing users to download potentially premium applications," said Satnam.

Cyber-experts say users should avoid being suckered in be offers of free coins, likes or followers – because it's often a scam.

If you're worried about your child's safety on the app, follow our guide to TikTok parental controls.

Responding to this story, a TikTok spokesperson said:  "In December, we raised the limit for virtual gifting during a livestream so that only users 18 and over can buy, send or receive virtual gifts.

"This change reflected our commitment to evolve our policies in order to further strengthen user safety.

"We continue to explore how we can enhance our features and design to ensure we are doing everything to prevent any form of misuse on TikTok."

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