Tech & Media
I Went on TikTok With My Kids and Was Shocked By What I Found
By Janice Quirt
Photo © 5m3photos/Twenty20
Jan 15, 2020
This piece was updated on July 23, 2020.
For my daughter’s 10th birthday party in the fall, I brought in a chef to teach the girls how to make homemade chicken nuggets and pizza from scratch. It was wonderful, delicious and educational, and exactly what my daughter had asked for.
But, you know what, I didn't need to bother.
Clearly all the party needed was a smartphone and the TikTok app. During any downtime, all attendees wanted to do was look at the 15-second looping video clips, talk about what they had viewed, make their own videos and post them.
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From that moment, I was thrown into the world of video sharing, so I had to quickly learn what I could about what is arguably the most popular video-sharing app.
I had heard of TikTok, but didn’t really understand its reach. When I first heard of it a while back I thought it was a website to look at dance moves and quickly lost interest. Then I learned that most of my kids’ school was deeply entrenched in the app — think Fortnite levels of interest and addiction — and that high school students were equally, if not more, entranced.
On TikTok, you can see a variety of short videos, everything from lip syncs and dance moves to random music clips edited with hash tags and effects. Some are downright inspirational; others are cringe-worthy. You can follow your friends and other accounts, and “heart” videos — there is no “dislike” option. However, comments are allowed and could of course be negative or inappropriate. Different privacy settings exist, which is somewhat reassuring.
While some parents love and support TikTok, others are concerned and limit its use. In trying to decide where I stand in the TikTok debate, here’s what I have found and experienced.
There are some very creative videos out there.
If your kids love to sing or dance, they'll get a kick out of some of the routines and lip syncs.
There are also a lot of cute animal videos, which seem fairly harmless.
I also like that there are privacy settings, so if you and your kids do decide to post anything, you can restrict who sees it (only approved followers would have access). You also always have the option to view the videos without posting anything yourself, if you want to be more passive.
There does seem to be something for everyone. There are posts about makeup, fashion, politics, humour and the beauty of the world. But with so much content, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
In my opinion, TikTok users in their teens and tweens need an adult to supervise what they are seeing and be prepared to have frank, real-time conversations about what is appropriate.
That’s because some of the posts are, as I've seen, overtly sexual, discriminatory and self-serving.
For example, a cool dance move is one thing. But a dance move by a youngster that demonstrates sexual poses, looks or suggestion is clearly not OK by me, and I believe this merits a discussion with my kids about why it isn't.
I've also witnessed some discriminatory tendencies, such as videos mocking a certain style of dressing, ethnic accents or just cruelly imitating others.
Young kids using TikTok likely don’t have the know-how to discern when something is mocking or discriminatory or has a sexual undercurrent.
"I don't want my kids to chase likes."
This is why I would recommend watching the videos together to be able to have these discussions and allow kids the opportunity to verbalize which videos they think are appropriate.
Once they seem to have a grasp of those underlying potential themes, parents can decide if the kiddos have earned their trust to watch videos on their own.
One video that I watched with my daughter should have checked all the boxes. It filmed a user giving money to a homeless person on a cold winter night.
But both my daughter and I felt disgusted by the filming of this so-called selfless act. It was so obviously planned for TikTok that it completely nullified the charitable element. The video even zoomed in on the recipient’s grateful expression, as if cued by the film director (which it felt like it probably was). One could argue that putting it on TikTok might encourage more acts of giving, but I doubt that result ever materialized. It came across as a clumsy stunt designed to get TikTok likes and followers rather than any true generosity.
I don't want my kids to chase likes.
Raising a kid in the age of information has left this mother worried. Read all about that here.
Poor taste aside, there are also some privacy and safety concerns with TikTok. Unless an account is set to “private”, there is no limiting the reach of a posted video. The same can, of course, be said for other social media accounts, all of which have much greater reach (and potential for ickiness) than, say, a student having their picture printed in the local paper highlighting an achievement.
Social media can travel around the world into the eyes and imaginations of countless people. It can be viewed with or without true context, so never underestimate its impact.
With everyone on smart phones these days it can also be hard to know if someone is being filmed without their knowledge. Young users might film “cute strangers” they see in passing and post the footage to their accounts asking for friends to help ID the object of their affection. Innocent intentions? Maybe.
"[Social media] can be viewed with or without true context, so never underestimate its impact."
But that is an invasion of their privacy and can be downright terrifying. Young people must also navigate the tricky waters of their friends wanting to film them and then posting that footage to accounts that may not be private.
Once a video is taken on someone else’s phone, it’s hard to control where it goes. Those are difficult conversations for kids to have with their friends, so I think it would be beneficial for parents to be aware of what could be going on and encourage kids to invoke their parents’ rules as a reason for declining to be filmed. It couldn't hurt for kids to have “I’m not allowed to be filmed or posted” as an excuse in their back pocket.
The Impact on School and Other Activities
I think the so-called cell phone ban in schools is a bit of a joke in some areas. In my kids’ elementary school, phones aren’t allowed during class time, but kids can use them during lunch, recess and right up until lessons start. In my experience, this results in the person in the class with the newest iPhone being surrounded by classmates to view the latest batch of TikTok videos. If you aren’t interested in TikTok, too bad. If these groups aren’t actively watching the videos, they’re talking about them.
What I've seen is that there is very little time or interest for anything that isn't related to TikTok. This reality led my 10-year-old to declare, in tears, “I wish social media had never been invented.” Gone are recesses playing soccer, tag or capture the flag, or even wandering around the playground chatting. (I mean, COVID is also responsible for a lot of this these days.)
It seems to be all dance moves, TikTok memes and iPhone longing.
I haven’t banned TikTok. I’ve allowed my daughter to watch videos under my guidance on her ancient iPad. It’s fine, but we’re just not into it. And I can see her frustration that this app has sucked up everyone’s time and attention. There is zero interest in building snow forts, writing silly — or serious — stories, drawing together or hanging from monkey bars. I’m not against the app, or people who allow their kids unfettered access. I just grieve the loss of those pastimes that kids have all too brief a time to enjoy.
"This reality led my 10-year-old to declare, in tears, 'I wish social media had never been invented.'"
At its best TikTok can be creative, funny and cute (puppies!). At its worse it can be sexual, discriminatory, self-promoting and an invasion of privacy. I think it nets out somewhere in between, but I would prefer my kids to enjoy time off of their devices. Come up with a dance routine? Sure! But don’t feel the need to film and post it. Do a good deed? 100 per cent! But why degrade the recipient by forcing them to be filmed.
I hope that friendships can go back to being based on a shared appreciation for wacky humour, passionate interests and beneficial hobbies, rather than flocking to people with the latest iPhone or best Wi-Fi access. And it’s likely that if your kids are older than six they have heard or been exposed to the app, so make sure to have the social media conversation. Ask questions about what they have seen or heard. Chat about the motivation for watching or sharing videos. Talk about how social media or the app makes them feel. But don’t assume that just because everyone is on the app its necessarily safe or worthwhile.
TikTok — I don’t hate you. I just wish your time was up.
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