Don't use TikTok? Here's what to know about the popular app and its potential ban in US

Time’s up for TikTok?

President Biden signed into law a bill that could lead to a nationwide ban of the app. The legislation, passed in recent days by Congress, gives TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance up to a year to sell its U.S. operations or face a ban. Lawmakers cited national security concerns.

The popular app is used by 170 million Americans, many of them younger. More than half of TikTok's users (51.8%) are aged 24 or under and 87.4% of its users are under the age of 45, according to Business of Apps.

The app, which lets you post videos, definitely skews younger. "TikTok is like the center of the internet for young people. It's where they go to be entertained, keep up with news, and discover new brands or, increasingly, buy products," Emarketer principal analyst Jasmine Enberg told USA TODAY.

The social media application logo for TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone in front of a US flag and Chinese flag background in Washington, DC.
The social media application logo for TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone in front of a US flag and Chinese flag background in Washington, DC.

TikTok & Congress: Grandpa, please don't ban TikTok

But even older users, those 18-and-up spend 54 minutes a day on TikTok, she said. "There's really no equivalent to TikTok. It's a little bit everything – entertainment app, shopping app, social app – and it can be different for anyone who uses it."

What is TikTok?

What is it like to use TikTok? Sulafa Zidani, a scholar of global digital culture and an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, describes it this way: "Imagine zapping through your TV channels and watching a quick show with each zap, that is what the TikTok experience is like."

The teen-targeted app got its beginnings with another app founded in Shanghai called, which launched in 2014, and started as a place to post amateur music videos including lip-syncing of popular songs.

Bytedance bought that app in 2017 and, in China, combined it with its Douyin video app. It subsequently launched an international version of the revamped app, which it called TikTok.

As TikTok's audience grew to surpass 1.5 billion users, the app's versatility has grown. There's still plenty of dancing and lip-syncing. Here's an example of a short TikTok video with lip-syncing and dancing.

The smartphone app "allows people to shoot, edit, and add effects to videos all in one app making it very easy to create videos and even responses to videos (a feature known as “stitch”)," Zidani told USA TODAY in an email exchange.

"It became popular especially for short form videos including anything from dance tutorial or silly pet behavior to educational content about history and current event explainers," she said.

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As you use the app and watch videos, the app gets to get to know the kind of content you like and will "suggest more of that content to … so (you) spend more time on the app," Zidani said.

You can use TikTok on Android and iOS devices, and once you sign up on desktop, too. You must supply an email and phone number to set up your account.

Who is on TikTok?

Like other social media platforms, TikTok has plenty of celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Billie Eilish, The Rock, Lizzo, Taylor Swift and Will Smith.

There's also influencers – many of whom are paid to promote products in their videos – other online creators, and big brands. For instance, McDonald's, Taco Bell and Kraft Mac And Cheese all have accounts.

Brands have engaged influencers as the platform's importance skyrocketed. Here you can watch an entry from TikTok food critic Keith Lee in which he discusses a promotion and philanthropic deal with Pizza Hut.

There's also millions of normal folks posting videos – for example, some point out deals they find at Costco and other retailers.

Videos created for TikTok can be posted on other sites including Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter.

Why could TikTok be banned?

Potential national security risks posed by TikTok have been a concern of legislators for several years. For instance, the issue was raised when the U.S. Army began recruiting on the platform in 2019.

In November 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress that he was “extremely concerned” the Chinese government could weaponize the data collected through TikTok.

TikTok says it has never been asked to provide U.S. user data to the Chinese government and wouldn’t if asked.

Bytedance promises to challenge the new law and users could challenge it, too. In the meantime, some big tech suitors may start circling around TikTok intent on acquiring the app.

For TikTok, the clock is ticking.

Follow Mike Snider on X and Threads: @mikesnider & mikegsnider.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: TikTok: What is the smartphone app and why might it be banned?