Part of our job as those who work with youth is to stay at least somewhat on top of youth culture, and the news and pop culture forces that may be affecting them. We probably won’t be able to actually be as cool as them, but we can pretend.
The app TikTok has made major headlines recently, with concerns over data privacy resulting in Congressional hearings and a possible US ban. TikTok is HUGELY popular with teens, so if it is banned? The impact will be widespread. Here’s what you need to know about TikTok to have conversations about it with teens at your Club or Youth Center.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a video-sharing app that allows users to create and share short videos, now up to ten minutes. Easy editing tools, popular music, and filters make it incredibly attractive to teens. TikTok began as an app called Musical.ly that focused on lip-syncing and dancing to music, both of which are still popular on TikTok today, though now videos take on innumerable styles, including funny sketches, informative content, and daily lifestyle vlogs. On the For You Page of the app, users can scroll endlessly through videos by others, delivered by complex algorithms that anticipate the kinds of content each user would most want to see.
How popular is TikTok?
TikTok has over 1 billion monthly active users across the world (not including China, which has their own separate version of a similar app- more on this later). In context, the other most popular social media for teens include YouTube (2.2 billion monthly active users), Instagram (1.4 billion), and Snapchat (750 million). 32.5% of all TikTok users are aged 10-19, the largest age share. According to Pew Research, 67% of teens aged 13 to 17 say they ever use TikTok, with 16% of all teens saying they use it “almost constantly.” It can be hard to find some of the more nuanced stats, but in 2021, one report stated that the average time kids and teens spent on TikTok was 91 minutes per day.
TikTok is known for viral “challenges” that sometimes make the news. Many of the most extreme sounding turn out to not actually be real, but more common are viral dances, video or sound filters, or food/product recommendations. Hobby communities, such as “Booktok” or “Sneakertok” can cause huge bumps in sales. Celebrities and corporations often try to make these go viral, but due to the nature of TikTok’s algorithms, average users can also become temporarily “TikTok famous.”
You keep saying algorithms. What does that mean?
Generally, an algorithm is a procedure used for solving a problem or performing a computation. According to TikTok itself, the for you page is powered by a “recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user.” The system uses the types of videos you like, comments or videos you post, hashtags, language and country preferences, and more to figure out what you like. It even gets so specific that it notices how long you watch certain types of videos, versus if you quickly scroll through after only watching half.
This system is a large part of TikTok’s success. It is great to see content you like! By intentionally liking certain topics, you can even “curate” your own experience. The algorithm can also be part of the downside. By delivering a literal constant stream of interesting content, users can find it difficult to put down their phones. Also, it can be easy to lose sight of larger cultural context. If all of the videos you see are about one topic, it can be easy to think that everyone is talking about it, even if it is a tiny niche number of users. Additionally, to get views creators sometimes create more and more extreme content, whether in format or in the message.
Why is Congress having hearings about this?
TikTok is owned by a company called ByteDance, which is based in China. The Chinese government has a lot of control over companies there, requiring access to lots of information. Fears that China may access US user data has led some State government officials to ban it on government-issued phones. In the March 23 hearing, CEO Shou Chew testified that US data is housed on American soil and cannot be accessed by the Chinese government, and that they are always improving data security. Some lawmakers, including the White House, have suggested that they will ban TikTok in the US if the Chinese ownership does not sell their shares of the company.
Additionally, some lawmakers used the hearing to speak about the types of problems social media generally can pose for young users, emphasizing that the unique nature of the TikTok algorithm can hypercharge those. Topics raised included eating disorders, sexual exploitation, or encouraging substance use. Chew testified to TikTok’s strong content moderation policies (which have led users to increasingly creative ways to avoid content filters) and parental controls on the platform. Representatives, on a largely bipartisan basis, did not sound convinced.
Critics of the hearings maintain that TikTok has demonstrated data security, noting that TikTok itself is not actually even available in China (ByteDance offers a very similar app for Chinese users exclusively). They also say that TikTok is being targeted unfairly, and that all social media platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat, pose similar dangers, but don’t face the same scrutiny because they are American companies with large economic sway in this country.
It is unclear at this point if the US government will follow through on its threat to ban TikTok, but some states are taking action, including sweeping new rules in Utah that restrict all social media use by children and teens.
Why does this matter?
TikTok is a huge driving force in youth culture right now, in both good ways and not so good. One positive of the platform is that it allows youth to connect with others who have the same interests as them, or even some of the same struggles. LGBTQ+ youth in particular have found it a haven for meeting others and finding acceptance. Youth advocacy is strong on TikTok, with videos about registering to vote, how to engage in local politics, and education around news and current events. Budding videographers, songwriters, and digital artists use it as a place to hone their skills. It is also just plain fun, with jokes and pop culture takes, and weird niche comedy that you can’t get anywhere else.
Some of the negatives have been mentioned above, but it is worth reiterating the addictive nature of using the app. It is really easy to lose time in the endless scroll, with TikTok even delivering videos every hour to encourage users to log off. Though most of the harmful challenges aren’t as widespread as news can make it seem, some youth have been injured or killed participating in them. There can also be intense pressure for those who want to be creators to be constantly on the app and churning out content at a near constant rate, which can lead to burnout or other mental health struggles.
Ultimately, it matters because it is something that is a part of the lives of many of the youth we work with.
How can I talk to youth about TikTok?
Conversations about TikTok and social media generally can be rich ways to engage with teens. Consider:
- Talk with teens about how they use social media, and how it makes them feel. Allow them to share without interjecting your own judgment. For the past two years, the Keystone Conference Steering Committee has specifically brought up how social media affects their mental health, so we know it is a hot topic.
- According to Pew, about a third of teens say they spend too much time on social media, and over half say it would be at least somewhat hard to give up. Ask youth what their motivations for being on social media are, and how they could meet those needs in other places, or through more limited social media time.
- Work with youth to brainstorm ideas for self-control, including putting time limits on apps they use most, or other activities to do if they feel themselves tempted to scroll.
- Also worth conversation is the specific types of content they consume. For example, we know some can lead to feelings of shame or negative body-image, and others to dangerous radicalization or violence.
Regardless of what happens with TikTok itself, social media platforms and youth and teens using them are here to stay, so we have to be aware of them, even if we don’t use them ourselves. Hopefully the information in this post will help you navigate those conversations in your Club. Want similar types of posts on other cultural topics? Email Sarah with your suggestions and questions. 🙂
Want to know more? Here are some interesting links:
- This article from Vox lays out arguments for and against TikTok.
- This is the Pew Research study mentioned a few times in this post, it’s worth the read.
- Our friends at VOX ATL, a youth-led media nonprofit, published this roundup of thoughts on TikTok by Atlanta teens. They are really insightful about the ways it has affected their lives.
- Want to embrace a delightful viral video from last year? We posted a round up of ideas based on one of my favorite TikToks of all time. IT’S CORN!