Day 6

Why TikTok dads are hitting heartstrings during the pandemic

A group of content creators who made dad-themed videos on TikTok and other platforms have become viral sensations during the pandemic. "It cuts to the very core of what all human beings really need, especially now," says Natasha Sharma, who runs a Toronto-based therapy practice.

Dad content creators have become viral sensations over the past couple of years

From left to right, Summer Clayton, Austen Alexander, Marc Anthony Sinagoga and Nick Cho are among a group of content creators whose dad-themed videos have become viral sensations during the pandemic. (YourProudDad/TikTok/Austen Alexander/YourKoreanDad/TikTok)

Summer Clayton is asking about your day.

"Tell me one good thing that happened, and one challenging thing. Start with the good thing."

Clayton, who uses the handle @yourprouddad, is talking to his 2.8 million TikTok followers, and this is one of the enormously popular offerings in his Dinner with Dad series. 

He's among a group of content creators whose dad-themed videos have become viral sensations during the pandemic. Whether the platform is TikTok, Instagram or YouTube, each of these men speak to the camera like they're talking to their own kid. Some dish out everyday kindness over takeout tacos or show you how to change a tire; others just make you laugh with comedic echoes of your own father.

Some, like Clayton, aren't yet dads in real life — they just play them on the really small screen. 

Clayton told Day 6 he experimented with different types of TikTok videos at first, but as 2020 came to a close, he noticed that when he played the part of parental guide, he enjoyed "this ability to connect with the person on the other side of the screen."

Natasha Sharma, who runs Toronto-based psychotherapy clinic NKS Therapy, says she isn't surprised to see how much these "internet dads" are resonating with people during a global pandemic.

"This is so simple and straightforward, and yet it cuts to the very core of what all human beings really need, especially now," said Sharma, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and specializes in relationships. "It's been a really rough couple of years."

Summer Clayton, best known as YourProudDad on TikTok, offers virtual dinner chats, heartfelt pep talks and practical advice for anyone who needs a father figure to lean on. We asked him about the inspiration behind his account and how he hopes to inspire kids and fathers who view his content.

'Speaks to the inner child'

She said these people are creating content "that really speaks to the inner child in pretty much everybody."

"Maybe you've lost a parent who you love dearly. Maybe you never had a parent who spoke to you and held space for you this way…. Even if you had healthy, loving, wonderful parents, I think we never lose the need to be parented in a certain way."

A smiling woman in a white blouse sits as a table with her chin on her hand.
Relationship expert Natasha Sharma, CEO of a virtual- and in-person therapy practice, says TikTok dads are delivering something that’s nourishing and refreshing in difficult times. (Blue Aspen Photography)

Sharma said the tone of this content is a welcome counterpoint to both the loud, self-promotional nature of a lot of social media content and the heavy stuff going on in the world.

"There's a lightness and a positivity and such a nourishing, nurturing element to these videos that is just such a refreshing change to see on social media."

Clayton, too, said that contrast is what's made room for him and other internet dads.

"The majority of TikTok is very entertainment-based…. I see a lot of dance trends, a lot of prank channels, a lot of very, very energetic, but also kind of chaotic, not very peaceful content," said Clayton, who lives in Columbus, Miss.

"It's just this little haven …people who enjoy my content, they say, 'this is my favourite comfort channel,' or 'this channel helps to calm me down' or 'this channel helps me to feel better when I'm sad.'"

A man in a dark green sweater sits with elbows on a table and smiles at the camera.
Summer Clayton, who goes by @yourprouddad on TikTok, says he’s quick to tell kids that parenting is a lot harder in real life than it is on the social media platform. (Supplied by Summer Clayton)

And then there's the relationship piece. Clayton said he gets a lot of comments and messages from people who say they wish they had the kind of relationship with their dad that he's modelling on TikTok.

"I've had a couple of people who mentioned that their parents had fallen ill from substance abuse … and they didn't have the relationship that they wanted to with their parents, and that I'm able to fill some sort of slot — in some way, shape or form — by doing the videos that I do."

When Clayton hears from kids who tell him they wish their own parents were more like him, he said he's quick to point out that parenting is a lot harder in real life than acting the part on TikTok.

Canadian dads, eh?

Toronto actor and comedian Austen Alexander Gregoris, who goes by Austen Alexander on TikTok and the stage, says he was making a variety of comedic videos when he started. "But I realized it wasn't hitting everybody in their heartstrings where people could relate and want to share it."

Two men chop fire wood in front of a wood shed.
Austen Alexander Gregoris, left, in a ‘cottage dad’ scene with fellow Humber College comedy program alum Marc Anthony Sinagoga, said he noticed his TikTok numbers really taking off during the pandemic. (Submitted by Austen Alexander)

But that changed when he began offering up "a simple slice of life" through dad-themed videos.

"So the first dad ones that I did were dads at the cottage. This was a couple of years ago — maybe early pandemic. And I noticed that those did really well…. Then I did hockey dad; just simple things that were relatable to me."

Gregoris said he noticed his numbers going up through the pandemic. "That's kind of when things took off for me," he said. 

"Even though my dad character is kind of based off of the dads that I know in my life, I get a lot of people … reach out to me being like, 'Man, my dad does the same thing. Like, this is so funny.'"

A man with glasses and a fleece vest sits at a desk between two computer monitors, a look of consternation on his face.
Austen Alexander Gregoris in a scene on his TikTok channel. (Submitted by Austen Alexander)

He points out that the way he portrays fathers is "not always wholesome" — picture a couple of hockey dads running down each other's kids during tryouts. "I'm exaggerating aspects of a father in those scenes." 

Unique ways of connecting

Each of these dad content creators has their own unique way of connecting.

Sharma notes that Nick Cho, who goes by @yourkoreandad on TikTok, is modelling a healthy kind of parent-child relationship that a lot of adults did not experience growing up.

"There's lots of praise to the viewer like, um, 'you're doing a great job. That's a great campfire you built.'"

Sharma said she estimates that as many as 50 per cent of adults have an unhealthy way of forming attachments to others stemming from how they were parented.

"That doesn't mean that they're not functioning well or that they have mental illness. Not at all. But the old school way of parenting led to this high percentage because it just it wasn't always very involved. There was no emotional focus. There was more of a functional, practical, stability focused, 'let's get these kids independent and kind of educated.' And this is if you were lucky, in a good household." 

Clayton said there was a wedge in his relationship with his father growing up because "there were some times where he just wasn't a gentle person."

"The way that he disciplined and chastised was … the way that his parents may have chastised him or treated him. And one of the things that he would say was don't be offended by words, or stress the importance of not being emotional."

He said it was through interactions with other people that he learned it was OK to take a gentler approach.

Clayton said making these TikToks help him to practise the empathy and patience he'll need if he becomes a parent down the road, and unlearn "some of those generational habits that my parents may have grown up with."


Summer Clayton interview produced by Yamri Taddese and Charlotte Oduol.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brandie Weikle

Journalist

Brandie Weikle is a writer and editor for CBC Radio based in Toronto. She joined CBC in 2016 after a long tenure as a magazine and newspaper editor. Brandie covers a range of subjects but has special interests in health, family and the workplace. She is currently the acting senior producer for CBC Radio's digital team. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.

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