Popular short video app TikTok announced on Thursday that from April 30, it will be blocking users under the age of 16 from sending or receiving direct messages as a part of new global measures to protect teenagers, who make up a sizeable proportion of its audience.

“Many users start their creator journey at 13 and are introduced to a wider array of app options for download, making it a critical time for teens and their families to learn about digital literacy and smart online behavior,” Jeff Collins, senior director of TikTok's Trust and Safety Department said in a statement on the app’s website.

This appears to be the first time that a major social media platform is restricting private messaging between users based on their age.

TikTok has become one of the most heavily downloaded apps worldwide since it was launched in 2016. (Picture: Shutterstock)

On Thursday, TikTok also announced parental controls under a program called Family Pairing, where parents will be able to link their TikTok accounts to their children’s and control the amount of time they spend on the app, their access to content that may not be age-appropriate and who can send messages to the paired accounts.

“We believe these options promote a safer and more trustworthy experience for our users of all ages,” Collins said.

Owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, TikTok has become one of the most heavily downloaded apps worldwide since it was launched in 2016. But its rapid growth has been marred by problems with regulators in countries like the US and India who have been particularly concerned with the app’s impact on children and teenagers.

In February 2019, ByteDance agreed to pay a US$5.7 million fine to the US Federal Trade Commission over TikTok's illegal collection of personal information from children. It was temporarily banned in India in April last year, after a local court ruled that it could expose children to sexual predators, pornographic content and cyberbullying.

TikTok said in the statement on Thursday that even before the introduction of Family Pairing, it already offered a number of resources to support teenagers and their families including educational safety videos and parental guides, as well as partnerships with top TikTok creators on videos encouraging users to take a break from their phones.

TikTok’s latest measures will help the app improve its brand image in the longer term, according to Meenakshi Tiwari, an independent internet and social media analyst based in India.

But she said the recent measures may not “have a major impact on controlling app usage by kids.”

“For instance, Family Pairing, which requires parents to join the platform too, is too much to ask for given that the app is less popular among GenX users,” Tiwari said, adding that whether the age-sensitive measure will take effect also depends on whether users register with their real age.

From January to March, the app had the most quarterly downloads for any app ever, with 315 million installs across the App Store and Google Play. Last year, it was the second most downloaded app behind WhatsApp, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.