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The Irresistible Lure of TikTok: Why Is the App So Popular?

Why understanding teens' intentions for using the app is important for parents.

Solen Feyissa/Flickr
Why are teens so drawn to TikTok?
Source: Solen Feyissa/Flickr

TikTok has frequented international news during the past few weeks, with declarations that it might be banned in the US as it already is in India. As I wrote about in my previous post, the announcement that TikTok might be banned is sending panic to millions of tweens and teens around the world.

In this post, I will continue to discuss the popularity of TikTok among tweens and teens, and I will also highlight why understanding your child’s intention for using TikTok is important.

Why TikTok?

For parents who are not yet aware, TikTok is an app used to post short videos. TikTok use is exploding rapidly; in the first quarter of 2020, it generated the most downloads for any app ever in a quarter, indicating that teens all over the world were seeking it out—especially during the time of extended lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the reasons it is so popular is that it is video-based, contains brief (mostly 15-second) videos, and thereby holds teens’ increasingly brief attention spans. In addition, different from some other popular social media platforms, your feed (i.e., the videos that appear as you scroll through) is driven not only by your friends’ feeds (i.e., what your friends are currently posting), but also by a page called “For You” that is derived of posts placed there because of an algorithm that determines your preferences based on videos you have previously interacted with or watched. Because of this algorithm, your feed never runs out of material, because the app is always feeding you videos that the algorithm determines that you “want” to watch based on your past viewing history. So you can take a glance at what your friends are posting (which could be quite limited) but spend untold hours scrolling through, liking, and commenting on the “For You” page posts of people you do not know. And the more you interact with Likes and Comments, the more your feed becomes curated just “For You."

In addition, some of its appeal for teens is that it can seemingly bring instant fame, international attention, and fortune to anyone who posts just the right video at just the right time, with just the right song and just the right dance moves (usually copying someone else’s dance moves to one of the TikTok dance challenges). Your teen is probably very familiar with Charli D’Amelio, the top influencer on TikTok with currently 74 million followers. At 16 years of age, her approximate net worth is over $4 million due to her massive following on TikTok. The number two influencer is currently AddisonRae (age 20), with 52.3 million followers and a net worth of $2 million. Their videos feature dancing and lip-synching to songs on mostly 15-second music clips. Sometimes they are dressed in sexualized clothing and bikinis, while other videos feature them in sweatshirts with little makeup. Each of their brief videos receives millions of views, reactions, and comments. Since their video content does not seem that out of reach for most teens, your daughter might wonder, could I be the next Charli? Your son might wonder, could I post the next breakthrough video?

Why are parents concerned?

Not only are parents worried about security concerns as cited in the news, but they are also worried about the content of the app itself—is it harmful for tweens and teens? Currently there is little research evidence that social media, per se, or any one app in particular is the cause of mental health problems. While there is definite concern that girls’ mental health problems are increasing along with the rise in social media use, the associations are more complex than a direct cause-and-effect relationship. The more important concern is not necessarily if your child uses TikTok or other social media platforms, but how he/she uses them—what is the intent when posting or scrolling through these apps?

A recent research report by Common Sense Media (2020) just released this week underscores this point:

A common question is whether some social media platforms or applications are more harmful or more beneficial for adolescents. Among the platforms used most frequently, it is not about whether the app is “good” or “bad” for mental health, but rather how adolescents are using them and what they are bringing into the platform (P. 26).

For Parents to Consider:

Why does your tween or teen want to spend hours viewing TikTok? What are adolescent user intentions in viewing their TikTok feeds? Could certain attitudes and intentions be more helpful than others? (See my previous post for information about the intent behind posting videos to TikTok).

Concern: As your child scrolls through the Friends and For You pages, is their purpose to search others’ accounts to see how many likes or followers they have and to see if they are measuring up? Is it to compare themselves to others and feel badly about themselves if their appearance, dances, or popularity are not adequate in the eyes of others?

Connect: Ask your child about the interesting things he/she might be discovering through TikTok. Help them to learn to view their feeds as a way to have fun, to learn about new trends, to discover new music, to laugh at silly (and safe) pranks and jokes. To illustrate, I asked my daughter to survey her friends about their favorite things about TikTok. In this decidedly unscientific poll, she asked some of her friends the question, “What would you miss most if TikTok is banned?”

Here are their responses (notice that they mention viewing, not posting):

  • “My favorite creators” “Finding new music”
  • “Learning about the news, finding out about what’s happening in the world”
  • “Music … It is full of underground music and catchy songs”
  • “Seeing how TikTok has changed creators’ lives”
  • “I would miss finding something that never fails to make me laugh”
  • “Scrolling through for hours and laughing
  • “Seeing other people like me, it helps me be more confident because I know I’m not alone”

I encourage you to explore these ideas with your adolescent in order to shift their use toward originality rather than towards conformity. With time, maybe your child can learn to scroll through TikTok to watch for age-appropriate trends, evolving ideas, sense of community, and humor, instead of for seeing who gains the most fame for copying dance moves and lip-syncing.