The popularity and success of TikTok lie in its simplicity. A video-sharing social networking platform that allows users to post videos no longer than 60 seconds (following on from its predecessors, Musical.ly and Vine), TikTok is a natural home for comedy skits, lip syncs, dances, and various hashtag-accompanied challenges. It could almost be described as a disruptive, democratised, do-it-yourself version of the long-running TV talent show format.
Since launching in March 2018, the app has catapulted into one of the most influential mediums of our times. Such is the cultural impact of the platform, that the most popular TikTokers can make up to $1 million (£700,000) per post via paid ads or through collaboration with external brands.
One of the best-known TikTok stars, Zach King, uses the app as a medium to showcase his talents in magic and deception to his 35 million (and rising) followers. Loren Gray, a 17-year-old singer from the United States (39 million followers and rising), used her popularity on the app to secure record deals with two major labels. And one British talent, Ronnie Warwick, even dropped out of sixth form at 16 to become a full-time TikTok video creator. But while the app’s tendencies towards humour, self-expression and creativity have garnered plenty of plaudits, not everyone has such a rose-tinted view.
The impact of TikTok on young people
Unsurprisingly, the urge to become TikTok famous is an irresistible one for many young people. With one video, a user can become an overnight viral sensation, gain thousands of new followers, and potentially get a headstart on their career. In the age of the influencer (indeed, several celebrities have active TikTok accounts), the pull of TikTok shows no signs of slowing down.
Given that TikTok’s user base is dominated by Generation Z (the youngest of whom currently make up the secondary school student population), this has direct implications for education. While many schools have a blanket ban on the use of mobile phones in the classroom, 90% of British children have their own smartphone device by the age of 11. Moreover, of the 500 million active TikTok users across the globe, 90% visit the app more than once a day. Users spend, on average, 52 minutes per day on the platform, and open the app eight times a day. Engagement with TikTok is extremely high — and educators argue this is to the detriment of schoolwork.
Education through innovation?
Every teacher and parent is aware of the problems associated with the use of phones in schools. Aside from being an obvious distraction, smartphones have exacerbated issues that have long plagued school settings, such as cyberbullying and cheating. Social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are particularly complicit in contributing to these problems.
However, unlike the ongoing controversy attached to the aforementioned apps, TikTok’s combination of the fun and the educational is winning some people over. In very reductionist terms, if Twitter has mutated into a “monster” that is dividing society, TikTok is helping to bring people together.
As an open platform to create, TikTok teaches both children and adults new skills. Aside from the video-editing skills that arise from creating videos, users can learn a raft of life skills from the app’s educational videos — from knitting to changing a bike tyre.
History teachers, in particular, will no doubt be pleasantly surprised by the popularity of a meme in which users creatively cover historical events — helping to educate users about the past in an engaging, easy-to-digest format.
The educational potential of the app is already being explored. In the US, one teacher is trialling a supervised after-school “TikTok Club”, while another encourages her physics students to create TikToks for homework assignments. While both teachers ban smartphones in the classroom, the onus is on getting students to leverage the app’s educational potential as an extra-curricular supplement to their schooling.
TikTok can also provide a light-hearted conduit for young people to share their most relatable school experiences. This can range from worrying about which subject to pick for GCSEs to unpicking the dynamics between different school years. In other words, TikTok provides a platform for pupils to see the humour in situations that could otherwise lead to tensions.
Though the app hasn’t been formally embraced by schools, it has been recognised as a medium that can foster collaboration between students. As the teacher who runs the after-school TikTok Club told the New York Times, “you see a lot more teamwork and camaraderie, and less — I don’t want to say bullying — focus on individuals. TikTok the business is taking note. In October 2019, the company entered the Indian e-learning market by launching its EduTok initiative, which has seen a drive to populate the platform with educational videos. Since then, it claims that over 10 million videos are tagged with #EduTok — now one of the most popular hashtags in India.
While the rollout of this programme was undoubtedly a business decision first and foremost (India was TikTok’s largest market for download volume in 2019), it highlights the growing worldwide trend of young students learning through video content.
In the UK, several video platforms are already common in classrooms up and down the country. Providing that addiction, safety and privacy concerns are met, TikTok may yet provide a viable alternative to other video-based teaching tools.
The inevitable drawbacks
Like every app, however, TikTok has a dark side. In one tragic incident, a 19-year-old Brazilian user live-streamed his suicide on the app. TikTok’s immediate response? Not to phone the police or alert his family, but to put together a PR strategy to avoid tarnishing the company’s image.
As a teacher or parent, it’s hard not to be cynical. Within five minutes of scrolling through videos, a casual user can stumble across instances of self-harm, violence or sexually explicit content (alarmingly, often featuring school-age children). In particular, TikTok has been criticised for its inability to tackle the growing problem of online predators — even though its community guidelines forbid users from using "public posts or private messages to harass underage users.” As reported by the BBC, “while the majority of sexual comments were removed within 24 hours of being reported, TikTok still failed to remove a number of messages that were clearly inappropriate for children.”
The lack of age verification when signing up to the app certainly doesn’t aid its cause. Instead of prompting users to verify their age, the age recommendation merely states “13 and above.” Indeed, while the app has banned under-13s and introduced ID checks in the US, there are no plans to do the same in the UK. No wonder, then, that some schools — notably St Cuthbert’s C of E Primary School in Lancashire — have produced TikTok factsheets to inform parents of the potential dangers of the app. Another charge against TikTok is the highly addictive nature of the app’s scrolling feature. With so much content variation and a constantly evolving algorithm, users are likely to find a video or meme tailored to their interests within seconds. The effect on a pupil’s concentration levels is inevitably negative.
In response, TikTok’s Beijing-based owner, ByteDance (incidentally, considered the world’s most valuable startup), introduced an anti-addiction mode on the Chinese version of the app, Douyin.
Despite incremental positive steps with regard to addiction, the case against TikTok is mounting. Aside from privacy concerns and the worrying possibility of online grooming, dangerous challenges such as the “Skull Breaker Challenge” have even resulted in schoolchildren being hospitalised.
Conclusion: the risks of TikTok outweigh benefits
While there is widespread resistance to the use of the app within a school setting, TikTok is unlikely to be the flash in the pan it seemed only a year ago. As the app’s audience expands, so too will the app’s offerings — as the launch of EduTok in India signifies. However, mounting evidence suggests that smartphones hinder learning. Not only can they have a negative impact on a pupil’s academic performance, but their use in the classroom can also make a teacher’s life more difficult.
The addictive nature of Tiktok, for all its benefits, has the potential to intensify these problems. And when we consider the very real ethical concerns tied to the app, it’s unlikely that schools will jump on the TikTok train en masse. In the UK, many schools ban mobile phones in the classroom, and the consensus among parents and teaching staff is that the ban has a positive effect on pupil behaviour, particularly in terms of concentration and sociability.
In one Llandudno secondary school, a ban on mobile phones saw GCSE grades increase by 10% within the first year of its implementation. Before TikTok is even considered as an educational tool, school boards would have to reconsider their stance on mobile phones — something that looks increasingly unlikely.
Ultimately, TikTok’s reputation is all a matter of perspective. For the GCSE student who uses the app to supplement their revision, it’s a source of educational inspiration. But unless TikTok’s owners proactively clamp down on the app’s worst recesses, its educational value could remain permanently tarnished.