TikTok: Pros, Cons, and the Promise of Youth Empowerment

by Sameer Hinduja

I trust by now that you’ve at least heard of TikTok, the fledgling short-form video app that has been around since 2016 but has exploded in popularity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With at least two billion downloads and at least 800 million active users (and probably way more), its reach seems to be expanding rapidly with every passing week. This may be in part because the 15-60 second video clips users post align well with our attention spans and desire for small bites of entertaining content, and because its algorithms work perhaps faster than their counterparts in identifying what types of content we are specifically interested in seeing (and, by extension, what we would quickly skip over). Furthermore, it is built around niches occupied by fervent and passionate users who have discovered that TikTok is a fun and engaging way to stay connected with each other about the things they love (e.g., shared interests such as magic, comedy, furries [animal characters with human features], anime, memes, sports, cooking/baking, and music).

TikTok’s popularity may be in part because the 15-60 second video clips users post align well with our attention spans and desire for small bites of entertaining content, and because its algorithms work perhaps faster than their counterparts in identifying what types of content we are specifically interested in seeing.

TikTok as a Point of Contention

However, as with any new app, there is a lot of confusion and even concern about TikTok. It is being discussed fervently in the US political arena (as President Trump seeks to ban it because of its current ownership by a Chinese corporation). In addition, it is a point of focus for K-12 schools – where teachers and students have embraced it in numerous ways but still worry about certain problematic cultural messages or behaviors being amplified on the app -) and families – as parents are wondering about whether it is a safe space for their kids to interact with others.

We absolutely want to equip parents and educators with the knowledge they need to keep students safe on this app. Here are some of the positives and negatives I’ve identified in case they help to round out your own perspective on the app.

Benefits of TikTok

  • Perhaps because of the interface and the relatable way that individuals are portrayed in any TikTok, users feel very comfortable to be themselves and to share compelling, creative bite-sized videos with others. The app has also been the location where memes originate and go viral, new phrases where challenges are posted and receive participation from all over the world, and a favourite platform of many celebrities.
  • It is arguably easier to edit content in TikTok than in other apps like Snapchat and Instagram. The filters and functionality to modify and improve your video are actually enjoyable to use.
  • There is always something original to explore because it’s a mirror of current social trends, and benefits from new songs being released (and featured) all of the time.
  • It is just really fun. In unique and inviting ways.

Concerns about TikTok

  • Accounts on TikTok, when first created, are set to Public. I realize the corporate benefit of this. I just hope that all users realize this, pause for a moment to reflect on the implications, and then take a second to toggle the setting to Private if they would prefer to control who is able to see their TikToks and leave them comments.
  • Parents tell me that they’re concerned about the fact that many videos feature songs with inappropriate lyrics. Yes, this is jarring when you watch a video and hear some profanity, and I wouldn’t personally want kids exposed to such language. However, I do know that many are exposed to this language at school, among friends, and those songs are readily accessible to them on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. Have a conversation with your kid about your expectations for lyrical content in their TikToks and have consequences in place if they violate your trust.
  • Parents also convey that they see many girls (and even some boys) act in very sexually suggestive ways in the TikToks they post. I’ve seen this too. It does make me uncomfortable. I’ve seen similar content on Instagram, but it’s not as “in your face” as it seems to be on TikTok. My major concern is that I don’t want youth (particularly girls, since they are disproportionately involved) to get caught up in objectifying themselves to get likes, comments, and follows. It’s very hard to understand the implications of this when you’re 13 – it just is amazing that others seem so interested in you, and really seem to care about you. To be sure, this concern is valid across many platforms.
  • TikTok provides the ability to filter out certain content that might be considered “mature” through a setting called “Restricted Mode.” This is available under “Me” (bottom right icon) and then “Digital Wellbeing.” (Parents, you will have to enable a “Family Pairing” setting (which links your child’s account to yours) in order to prevent your kid from changing the security settings you implement). Restriced Mode does a relatively good job at keeping sexual content and violence out of your Home feed, but it is not perfect. I have seen some sexually suggestive dancing by younger girls come through (this may or may not upset your sensibilities, I’m just relaying my experience). And I’ve never seen any porn (nor should I, because it violates their Community Guidelines). I do know that TikTok is continually refining their algorithms to improve their accuracy of detecting mature content.
  • It’s easy to get stuck in a content silo if you are only scrolling through the For You Page. To combat this, use the Discover button to search for different hashtags and be introduced to different creators.

Please don’t miss this major point: all apps have pros and cons. The concerns I have mentioned above are present on all other major social media apps. They are not inherent or uniquely restricted to TikTok. What is also interesting is that our Center has yet to receive a request for help from a TikTok user-specific to cyberbullying, threats, or related issues (and we do get help requests all the time from users on other platforms). Is that because TikTok is super responsive to Reports sent in through the app? I hope so. If so, that’s great.

The concerns I have mentioned above are present on all other major social media apps. They are not inherent or uniquely restricted to TikTok.

When parents ask for my professional opinion on TikTok (or any app), I discuss the benefits and the concerns, show them how it works on my phone, and explain to them why it’s so popular and sticky. And then I tell them to download it, spend a few minutes on the For You (or Home) page, and make sure they follow their teen’s account so they can stay in the know of what is being posted.

Overall, we should refrain from demonizing certain new apps due to a lack of understanding or appreciation of their benefits. Plus, we would do well to remember that social media in and of itself isn’t bad or wrong or evil. While we often hear about and focus the most attention on the bad things that occur on or via social media, we should remember that it is also often being marshalled for positive purposes. Many youth are feeling increasingly empowered because of the platform that social media provides to share what they care deeply about. TikTok is a global community, much like the ones that exist on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch. The users – as a collective – set the tone and therefore dictate the environment in which others can feel free to post and share what matters to them. The more voices out there that promote tolerance, kindness, and mutual respect, the better it will be for everyone.

TikTok as a Platform for Cyberbullying Prevention

As I close, I wanted to focus on something I’m seeing that I love: youth speaking out about cyberbullying and attempting to shift peer perceptions on what is appropriate, and what is not.

Here are a few videos that I found on TikTok across where teens are speaking out (or otherwise conveying) about the need to be respectful in comments, demonstrating resilience, and trying to set a tone of kindness for others. I’ve uploaded them to YouTube for ease of experience across devices.

 

One observation here is worth exploring: all of the creators of the videos shared above are of the same demographic – young white girls. Why is that? TikTok users span the spectrums of age, gender, race, and religion and is available in 75 languages. Users come from all over the world. Is this demographic disproportionately targeted? Or, do they feel safer and freer than other groups to speak up and speak out? It was very hard for me to surface anti-bullying TikToks by non-white, non-female creators (if I could have, I would have featured them here). You’d think as a dark-skinned male of Indian descent, I would see a more diverse assortment of creators’ content. This said, I feel like TikTok would do well to identify, elevate, and otherwise promote TikToks that contribute to establishing a kind, accepting, respectful environment so that other users of those differing demographics feel supported. Instagram has publicly asserted that they want their platform to be known for kindness, and this shouldn’t be the exception among social media companies. It should be the norm, and TikTok should help lead the way.

Finally, regardless of what happens with TikTok’s ownership situation, it is not going away any time soon. You may have heard that a number of American companies (such as Microsoft, Twitter, and Oracle are interested in purchasing it). Plus, we’ve already seen an increase in TikTok users familiarizing themselves with VPNs to get around any technological bans that Internet Service Providers might be forced to implement (even though I don’t think this is a long-term solution). I’m confident it’s going to continue to grow – and hopefully TikTok will take continued intentional steps to safeguard its userbase and promote healthy, happy interactions.

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