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Intensified Play: Cinematic study of TikTok mobile app

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Abstract

This article examines the user experience of the TikTok app by pairing the cinematic techniques of social videomaking with the play behaviors of playground equipment. Through interviews with leading TikTok creators and film analysis of app trends, TikTok is identified as a "virtual playground," and form of "intensified play," an expansion of intensified cinematic continuity into short-form, user-generated video. The article subsequently discusses the moral panic and social ramifications of the app.
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Intensified Play: Cinematic study of TikTok mobile app
Ethan Bresnick
University of Southern California, Division of Media Arts + Practice, ebresnic@usc.edu
Abstract. This article analyzes TikTok, a video creation and sharing app, within the contexts of film editing and
play behaviors. The first five sections examine the history, creative functions, and play experience of TikTok. The
final section discusses its moral panic and social ramifications.
Keywords: TikTok, mobile video, film editing, play theories, playgrounds.
1 Introduction
TikTok, a mobile video creation and sharing application, formerly known as Musical.ly, has
seized the attention of young audiences around the globe. As a result of its design, technology,
and surrounding cultural conditions, TikTok has spawned into the most downloaded Apple iOS
video app, with youth ages 13 - 18 comprising half of the 500 million monthly users (Cheng,
2018). The app strategically targets a user segment not considered by video hosting websites and
editing apps of the past. Children born in the 2010s are taken by the thrill of playing with video.
TikTok is a virtual play structure: a recreational space manifested in electronic media. In the
present, virtual play structures (i.e. virtual playgrounds) are digital experiences that correspond
to physical playground experiences. Virtual playgrounds offer quick video creation and sharing
workflows as forms of play (e.g. Apple Photo Booth, YouTube). This virtual playground,
TikTok, is comprised of audiovisual controls for making looping 15-second videos. These
elevated editing features include in-camera speed controls, image-tracking composites,
collaborative split-screens, and a shortened video timeline.
Editing TikTok videos on a mobile device reproduces the elaborate post-production of
professional cinema. TikTok shares post-classical feature cinema’s “intensification of established
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[visual] techniques” (Bordwell, 16). In his 2002 essay, film scholar David Bordwell identifies
this aesthetic change with the term and essay title, “Intensified Continuity.” Bordwell writes
about the tools that give rise to “intensification,” such as shot duration, camera motion, and
visual effects. “The crucial technical devices aren’t brand new—many go back to the silent
cinema—but recently they’ve become very salient, and they’ve been blended into a fairly distinct
style.” (16). TikTok emulates post-classical editing techniques in the design of a virtual
playground. Playground equipment corresponds to intensified audiovisual effects. In practice,
TikTok’s video editing features amplify traditional characteristics of play, producing an
experience of intensified play. Intensified play connects the intensification of contemporary
cinematic techniques to the changing characteristics of play on mobile devices.
2 The Slide
TikTok was launched in 2014 as a music video creation app, formerly known as Musical.ly. The
app initially focused on recording and hosting user-generated music videos with increased
playback speeds. Video playback speed, previously regarded as an editing decision, was
relocated to the recording interface. This feature allowed for TikTok video creators such as
Ocean Angela (1.2 million followers) to record lip-sync music videos with intricate
choreography and realize speed changes instantaneously. The app slows music playback during
recording and then speeds up the encoded clip. Music videos captured in TikTok accelerate
motion, thereby separating its content from other video apps with fixed recordings of time. “I
started out lip-syncing to songs...back when it [TikTok] was Musical.ly, it was more popular to
do the sped-up videos,” says Angela
*
.
*
FaceTime interview with Angela, O., April 4, 2019.
3
The sped-up effect that TikTok artists employ results in short-form videos with racing
motion. In her essay, “Reframing Fast and Slow Cinemas,” media professor Karen Beckman
Redrobe characterizes fast cinema as a “race” in her analysis of chase sequences in early cartoon
films (128). TikTok music videos are animated and “cartoony” with video speed effects. This
cloud of motion races to the ending, mesmerizing young viewers similar to classic cartoon films.
TikTok videos are squeezed to the 15-second timeline, moving faster and more theatrically than
user-generated video on other apps and websites.
The racing motion in TikTok videos reinforces the separation of playful video creation
from other mobile video production and consumption applications. Play is a significant category
of child behavior because of its importance to development and creativity. It is an abstract
behavior that requires extensive analysis to fully grasp. French literary theorist Roger Caillois
demystified the characteristics of play in his 1958 book, Man, Play, and Games. Caillois writes
that separation is a defining characteristic of play where “intricate laws of ordinary life are
replaced, in this fixed space.” (Caillois, 7) In physical playgrounds, slides contribute to this
replacement of ordinary life. Slides have a thrill of increased speed separate from other
playground equipment and ordinary activities. Racing down the slide is a separate temporal
experience. In the virtual playground, TikTok videos have a differentiated playback speed in
comparison to other online video. The thrill is shortened to 15 second durations of play to serve a
fast-paced target demographic. These temporal constraints separate TikTok as a video app that is
wildly unlike play of the past.
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3 The Sandbox
Part of TikTok’s enhanced playfulness is the capacity to mold imaginative images with image-
tracking and augmented reality effects. While recording clips, users select from a menu of
objects and masks to composite into the frame. Facial motions are computationally tracked in
front-facing camera recordings. Users can embody an in-animate character or reconfigure their
appearance in surprising formations. Erica Cornelius (1 million TikTok followers) repeats a
“shrinky dink” effect in her TikTok video series, acting as a character named Pam. The effect
squeezes the video frame as a carnival mirror does with distorted reflections. “I created Pam as
an alter ego…people ended up loving this character,” says Cornelius
. The recorded material is
malleable, allowing Cornelius to perform as a make-believe character in her videos.
This attribute of video malleability extends to the setting. “World effects” are augmented
reality environments that video subjects can step into. A TikTok video by Andrea Okeke (2.7
million TikTok followers) depicts Okeke sitting in traffic while an animated emoticon dances in
the middle of the road. Augmented reality adds a visual layer to an otherwise unmediated video
clip of Okeke sitting in traffic. “It makes them more eye-catching… they [the effects] are fun to
play around with,” says Okeke
.
Caillois asserts that this experience of the “make-believe” is a consistent aspect of play
(9). TikTok users play and perform in simulated characters and settings. Users can imagine a
story and act out their scene in a make-believe environment. This video creation app is an escape
from reality, an environment where users play dress-up from a selection of template effects. The
sandbox is a play environment that invites make-believe. The physical material is highly
malleable allowing users to construct structures from the sand and temporarily inhabit
FaceTime interview with Cornelius, E., April 14, 2019.
FaceTime interview with Okeke, A., April 22, 2019.
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miniaturized architecture. Molds provide points of access to create spatial stories. Castle and
tower structures are the sandy foundations from which players continue creating. On TikTok,
users are given a selection of molds to choose from such as Cornelius’s “shrinky dink” face
effect and Okeke’s emoticon composite layer. Imagination and the make-believe are intensified
with malleable image creation and an accumulating menu of molded effects.
4 The Seesaw
Video creation on TikTok is a conversation. The unplanned back and forth motion between
creators makes the app an incredibly social playground. Users imitate rising trends (referred to as
“tags” or “challenges”) and collaborate through a practice of repurposing and remixing peer
content. This social activity has brought about a dialect of catchphrases, terms and jokes (i.e.
internet memes) isolated to the app and its young users. One recurring genre is the “challenge
video” in which users re-perform a given task or activity in their individual style.
The “#Flamingo” challenge became a popular video theme in 2019 when TikTok
licensed “Flamingo,” a song by Kero Kero Bonito that enumerates colors of the rainbow in its
lyrics. TikTok users made use of the song to montage through elaborate makeup styles in sync
with each color in the song. Autumn Klein, a ballet dancer with 1.4 million TikTok followers,
adapted the trend by wearing different color tutus. Her version of the #Flamingo challenge
received 700,000 likes by TokTok users. “I look for these [trends] and then I’ll try to flip it so its
dance-related,” says Klein
§
. Challenge videos spread socially in the back and forth motion of
users promoting themes and their followers responding through personalized content. This
playfulness is rapid, self-sustaining, and multi-player. A menu of licensed audio tracks and
original visual effects keeps the app fresh and relevant to its media-connected users.
§
FaceTime interview with Klein A., April 21, 2019.
6
TikTok grew out of a practice of remixing and repurposing music. In the former
incarnation of the app as Musical.ly, users would dance to licensed pop songs collaboratively
with split screen and picture-in-picture video compositing. These features, named Duet and
React, are the “sharing” options on the TikTok video feed. Duet recording splits the screen in
half for side-by-side synchronized performance with a repurposed video, while React layers an
original front-facing recording in the top left corner of a repurposed video. “I do Duets
sometimes...there’s a lot of dance trends on TikTok and sometimes I’ll take a step and change it
to ballet, and do it side-by-side with the other creator,” says Klein. This call and response style,
an unpredictable seesaw, makes TikTok a high speed social playground. The video conversation
can inspire a trend or challenge localized to TikTok overnight.
The popularity of the app springs from its uncertainty. Even the most ludicrous ideas can
trigger video themes to spread through the user base such as montaging color props in the
#Flamingo challenge. It is difficult to predict how public content might be repurposed or
appropriated in Duet and React videos. Users do not know what will happen next, and the
unknown keeps users tuned to the app. Caillois considers play to be an “uncertain activity” in
which “doubt must remain until the end” (10). Joining another player on a seesaw is an uncertain
activity. One player determines the force and direction, sending the other player in an unknown
trajectory. This two-way physical interaction on the seesaw is why split-screen video remixing
adds uncertainty and interactivity to media production.
The direction of a TikTok video is unknown. Users get on board and bring fame to
creators unexpectedly such as Ocean Angela (1.2 million TikTok followers). “I started making
them for myself and my friends...The fact that it was fun made me keep doing it. When people
started to follow me, I was kind of shocked and I didn’t know it was going to be as big in my life
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as it is now,” says Angela. TikTok requires multiple players to keep itself in motion. This
conversation through video is what keeps TikTok and its local culture alive. The app is a global
playground with 500 million players interacting.
5 The Swing
A universal hallmark of TikTok videos is the bisected structure: a sequence “jump cutting
between two clips. It is the underlying formula to popularity on the app. This two-part structure
involves a set up (“Shot A”) and a punchline (“Shot B”). The setup introduces the setting,
activity, or character until a punchline interrupts the continuity with a reveal or resolution in the
latter half. The jump cut truncates traditional three-part narrative (beginning, middle, and end) to
a editing structure fitting the 15 second duration. “There has to be a surprise ending. The way
that the TikTok algorithm is set up, it’s really important for people to complete [the duration of]
your video,” says dancer Autumn Klein. The fast-paced user consumes the content and moves
down to the next video in the feed. Josh Sadowski (1.3 million TikTok followers) describes the
bisected structure as “going from seriousness to humor.” “You always build up and have that
climax and a surprise at the end, whether it's a funny joke or a scream [sound effect] or a funny
GIF,” says Sadowski
**
. This rule to TikTok matches the format and its user. It importantly
designates “latitude of the player” which Caillois believes is necessary to achieve the pleasure
and excitement of play (7). Creativity emerges within the challenging rule set.
TikTok videos are thrilling with a beginning and surprise end; a rise and a fall.
Playground swings go up and go down, and although gravity governs this play structure, users
return to the swing set time and time again. The repetition of the two-part motion calls attention
to the social aspects of the experience. The swing is enjoyable to play with because of its
**
FaceTime interview with Sadowski J., April 4, 2019.
8
changing setting and the participants joining in. TikTok similarly repeats its mechanics. The
jump cut or punch line at the end of the video is anticipated. Within a familiar structure,
creativity is vibrant and users stretch what is possible in 15 seconds.
A rising genre on TikTok are “satisfying videos.” These videos contextualize ordinary
objects in aesthetically pleasing destructions. Satisfying videos are the visual counterpart of
autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) soundtracks which are orchestrated with close-
up audio samples to induce a sense of euphoria in the listener. One TikTok creator under the
pseudonym of “Sand Tagious” (2.2 million TikTok followers) pairs videos of crushing synthetic
colored sand with synesthetic audio samples. Sand Tagious sustains attention by resolving the
object’s destruction in the second half of the video duration. Sand Tagious allows for their
creative process, manipulating the sand while recording, to dictate the jump cut moment. “I think
of an idea for the initial shape, make the shape, and start filming. The videos usually start out
how I planned...Sometimes new ideas come as I’m filming so it could evolve into a second
part.”
††
In “satisfying videos,” the delightful endings follow the consistent TikTok structure.
6 The Fall
By developing the app largely for children, TikTok has tremendous pressure to have appropriate
content and social conduct. Published articles to this point are fiercely critical of the app, and
particularly of its alleged data collection from users under 13 years old (Herman, 2019).
ByteDance, the Chinese firm owning TikTok, settled the data collection lawsuit with the Federal
Trade Commission for a sum of $5.7 million dollars in 2019 (Timberg et al., 2019). This
magnification of danger on TikTok is typical of technologies designed for children. The dangers
have evolved into intensified forms in the virtual medium. Injuries on playground equipment are
††
Email received from Sand Tagious, April 19, 2019.
9
now TikTok video challenges. Child predators loitering near playgrounds are now anonymous
TikTok accounts subscribing to young creators.
Because TikTok exists within a private smartphone rather than a public place, parents are
not present to catch their child from falling off the play structure or to ward off unwelcome
voyeurs. Playgrounds were designed in the late 1930s to protect children from the dangers of
playing in roadways as automobiles proliferated and play activities were deemed reckless and
unstructured (Stutzin, 34). Areas for children and parents were fenced off and segregated from
the city. The design of the playground mitigated injury, “the fall,” by structuring play activity.
The virtual playground lacks this perimeter and oversight, promoting parental “moral panic.”
The absence of parental supervision intensifies the moral panic that new technologies
regularly instigate. In his book, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, sociologist Stanley Cohen
describes moral panics as efforts by societal institutions to exaggerate the dangers of new
practices and undermine their adoption (Cohen, 1). For virtual playgrounds, the moral panic
focuses the narrative on data collection, hazardous filming, and online predators before
examining the creativity that media production motivates. Moral panics loop with each media
technology, blurring what dangers are specific to TikTok (Vickery, 35). The pressure on
ByteDance following the 2019 lawsuit prompted strict age requirements to register for an
account and robust automated software for detecting user comments with adult language. The
moral panic brought about a designed parental figure, exerting control over what occurs on the
virtual playground.
Often moral panics involve a misdirected notion that technology is unproductive for
children. TikTok is unlike social media applications that emphasize content consumption over
production. “This is the only app that I’ve found where people are so creative,” says comedian
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Sarah Cornelius. The app is more a creative media than a social media. TikTok liberates young
people to play without adhering to the visual styles, narratives, and online cultures of the past. “I
get messages from people who say my videos take away their anxiety...saying their child has
autism and it actually helps them stay calm and focused,” says artist Sand Tagious. “My favorite
thing about TikTok is the ability to use trends and memes to expose people to ballet who might
otherwise not be exposed to it,” says ballet dancer Autumn Klein. Speaking with TikTok creators
in this study uncovered a global community for youth to create videos about their interests.
7 Conclusion
The characteristics of intensified play are qualities valued in childhood, such as imagining make-
believe worlds, accepting uncertain outcomes, and following rule sets. Virtual playgrounds
engage the cognitive skills of physical playgrounds and incorporate motor skills in the artistic
process of producing videos. With time creating and socializing in video, TikTok feels more like
an energetic playground than a passive video sharing application. The virtual playground shapes
its user to play through video creation. Interviews and application testing identified the virtual
playground equipment that stimulates intensified play:
Playback speed increase and decrease
Face-replacement and augmented reality
Audiovisual remixing (split-screen, picture-in-picture, audio library)
Chronological sequencing and montage
The fundamental features in TikTok suggest new aesthetics of children's entertainment media.
Mobile video is treated with an extensive amount of audiovisual enhancements such that TikTok
videos hyperbolize mainstream feature cinema. TikTok democratizes cutting-edge cinema
11
technology and allows for effects to be rendered while recording the video or promptly post-
capture. The library of content to create videos with (face tracking filters, licensed music, color
tinting styles) and user-generated video to remix (Duets and Reacts) is increasing as ByteDance
sustains app features and users contribute to the video database. As children being raised on the
virtual playground enter adulthood in the coming decade, intensified play will no longer cause
moral panic. Quick video production on mobile devices will become an acceptable form of play.
References
1. Beckman, K. (2016). The Tortoise, the Hare, and the Constitutive Outsiders: Reframing
Fast and Slow Cinemas. Cinema Journal, 55(2).
2. Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified Continuity Visual Style in Contemporary American Film.
Film Quarterly, 55 (3).
3. Caillois, R. (2001). Man, play and games. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
4. Chen, Q. (2018, September 18). The biggest trend in Chinese social media is dying, and
another has already taken its place. Retrieved April, 2019, from
https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/19/short-video-apps-like-douyin-tiktok-are-dominating-
chinese-screens.html
5. Cohen, S. (2011). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers.
London: Routledge.
6. Herrman, J. (2019, March 10). How TikTok Is Rewriting the World. Retrieved from
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/10/style/what-is-tik-tok.html
7. Stutzin, N. (2015). Politics of the Playground: The Spaces of Play of Robert Moses and
Aldo van Eyck. ARQ (Santiago), (91).
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8. Timberg, C., & Romm, T. (2019, February 27). The U.S. government fined the app now
known as TikTok $5.7 million for illegally collecting children’s data. Retrieved April,
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9. Vickery, J. R. (2018). Worried about the wrong things: Youth, risk, and opportunity in the
digital world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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As a machine for the production of common experiences, the playground was one of the most promoted urban spaces in the mid-twentieth century. Through the surprising parallel between Aldo van Eyck’s plan in Amsterdam and Robert Moses’s plan for New York, this article proves that such a politically correct program can be grounded on completely opposing world views; that is, that a common space can also be a place to experiment divergent political visions.
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Where exactly do cinematic speed and slowness reside, and what kinds of instruments do we need to measure them? As this dossier works to bring fresh energy to existing conversations about fast and slow cinemas, we might usefully consider which cinemas have not been invited to join the “race,” how the multiple locations of cinematic tempo interact with one another, and what is at stake in each of these interactions. Contemporary discussions of fast and slow cinema can fall into somewhat rigid polarizations that caricature Hollywood as fast, uncritical, ballistic, and sensational (rather than intellectual) and global art cinema—cast as taking its cues from a European and primarily male modernist cinema—as slow, intellectual (rather than physical), and offering a greater spectatorial freedom than its Hollywood counterpart. In addition to noting the obvious overgeneralization of these sketches, it’s worth highlighting that participants on both sides of the debate tend to share a kind of normative amnesia (with the exception of frequent dutiful nods to Chantal Akerman) regarding the centrality of discussions of tempo, duration, and patience to earlier critical discussions now often characterized as passé because of their relationship to identity politics: feminist film theory and practice in the 1970s and 1980s and their attention to what Teresa de Lauretis described as a “temporality and rhythm of perception” defined by “a woman’s actions”; third cinema theory’s exploration of cinema’s multiple “chronotopes”; and more recently, queer film scholarship on duration, backwardness, and drag in the work of scholars such as Douglas Crimp, Jean Ma, Homay King, Elizabeth Freeman, and Judith Halberstam. This amnesia maps a cognitive landscape in which contemporary global cinema seems thinkable only through Hollywood or male-dominated European art cinemas, failing to bring into view a richer network of continuities and ideas, depoliticizing fast and slow discussions, and narrowing the field’s sense of what counts as cinema. The brevity of this essay prevents a full exploration of earlier, politically charged, and now often overlooked discussions of cinematic tempo, so I briefly consider only the example of how third cinema theory might enrich contemporary debates before turning my attention to animation, another zone of filmmaking that is pertinent to but excluded from this debate. In 1985, Teshome H. Gabriel argued in “Toward a Critical Theory of Third World Films” that the time-space relations and rhythms of non-Euro-American films were different from those found in Euro-American films. Slowness, silence, cyclical progression, excess, gaps, longer duration, and a fixed camera perspective are all qualities that he aligned with films growing out of local traditions, out of folk and oral rather than print and literary art forms. However, as the late Paul Willemen points out, Gabriel was immediately criticized for prematurely homogenizing what Willemen calls the “Third Cinema chronotope,” a variety of which we may be in danger of repeating today. In his 1986 essay “Triangular Cinema, Breaking Toys, and Dinknesh vs. Lucy,” the Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima similarly associated the distracted and rapid movement of Western news cameras covering African wars with a disinterest in, and a turning away from, African bodies. Yet ultimately, although Gerima’s films could be described as both slow and long, aesthetic pace is not his priority. Rather, his comments about cinematic tempo focus on the need for “a cinema of long-term objectives to change, if necessary to rearrange our disgraceful existence,” and on the extended duration of audience building: “The audience we have inherited was built slowly, painfully stacking up person by person.” In addition, he calls attention to the long and slow process of film education and visual literacy, and on the discrepancy between the Anglo-Saxon filmmaker, who is allowed to experience step by step what Gerima calls “the stages of development,” and the African American filmmaker, who is denied the chance to “learn how to spell in motion pictures.” Gerima’s career exemplifies this patience and commitment to sustainable, community-oriented cinema in which the empowerment of what Toni Cade Bambara has called the “authenticating audience” constitutes the filmmaker’s fundamental priority. Louis Massiah, filmmaker and executive director of Scribe Video Center, points out that change often occurs gradually, imperceptibly, in...
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Do today's movies, filled with dazzling spectacle and often less-than-dazzling plotting and characterization, constitute a break with Hollywood's past? This essay argues that recent films rely upon many principles of traditional "continuity filming," but that there are nonetheless some important changes. In particular, certain techniques, such as fast cutting and free-ranging camera movement, have become more forceful and flamboyant. These techniques have blended into an approach to visual storytelling which we can call "intensified continuity." By analyzing films and reflecting upon comments gleaned from filmmaking professionals, the essay suggests where the new style comes from and how it affects viewers.
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Mods and Rockers, skinheads, video nasties, designer drugs, bogus asylum seeks and hoodies. Every era has its own moral panics. It was Stanley Cohen’s classic account, first published in the early 1970s and regularly revised, that brought the term ‘moral panic’ into widespread discussion. It is an outstanding investigation of the way in which the media and often those in a position of political power define a condition, or group, as a threat to societal values and interests. Fanned by screaming media headlines, Cohen brilliantly demonstrates how this leads to such groups being marginalised and vilified in the popular imagination, inhibiting rational debate about solutions to the social problems such groups represent. Furthermore, he argues that moral panics go even further by identifying the very fault lines of power in society.
The biggest trend in Chinese social media is dying, and another has already taken its place
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How TikTok Is Rewriting the World
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The U.S. government fined the app now known as TikTok $5.7 million for illegally collecting children's data
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Timberg, C., & Romm, T. (2019, February 27). The U.S. government fined the app now known as TikTok $5.7 million for illegally collecting children's data. Retrieved April, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/02/27/us-governmentfined-app-now-known-tiktok-million-illegally-collecting-childrens-data/