Understanding how children use and take meaning from TikTok

Depending on where you read your news, TikTok,the world’s fastest growing social media platform (it has already surpassed 1billion users), is anything from huge commercial opportunity, to a cyber-securityrisk, the future of the creative industry, a child mental health apocalypse,the renaissance of Vine, or even a threat to freedom of speech, to name just afew hypotheses!

While views about TikTok vary wildly, there isconsensus that it is a very big deal. A lot of what contributes to the intensesense of excitement or apprehension that surrounds this platform is the factthat it is almost completely incomprehensible to anyone that isn’t a user. Abig part of this is that its users are remarkably young; in research sessions,I now expect nine, or even eight, year-old children to be talking to me aboutTikTok. One only needs to look at adult celebrities trying to join the partyand how much their content misses the mark (ahem! Will Smith) to realize quitehow much TikTok is for the younger generations, by the younger generations.


Nine years old is the UK average age forindependent ownership of a personal smartphone (Children’s media use andattitudes – Ofcom 2019), and this serves as a watershed moment when childrengain near unlimited and unsupervised access to the big wild world of theinternet. This milestone goes hand in hand with curiosity about social media.While Facebook has issues with inappropriately young people accessing itsplatform, its text-based and adult-aimed format and content do not actuallykeep them on the platform for very long. TikTok, on the other hand, with itsshort concentrated bursts of visual humour, dances and ‘satisfying content’ isa smash hit for children with restless and hyperactive minds. Not only isTikTok more palatable than Facebook for youth audiences, it has also found aclever way around legal restraints by making the content and core UX of theproduct entirely accessible without an account. None of this counts towardstheir user numbers or ad revenue, but it has a big impact on future audiencegrowth. But this still doesn’t answer the core question: what are childrendoing on TikTok?


The fact that TikTok users are so young andits appeal is not easily understood by anyone millennial or older, means thatmost commentators and commercial strategists looking in don’t get much beyondsurface level observations. An informed observer will be able to make somesensible comments about TikTok’s lightning fast hype cycle, its use of humourand music, the creativity of its users, and the disposability andsuperficiality of its trends, but the essence of the platform remains elusive.


During a recent in-home research session withthree nine-year-old girls I gained an insight into child use of TikTok that Ithought was particularly interesting. Before getting to the core researchquestions, we spent some time talking about their favourite films, games andthings to do in their spare time; in this way we got on to the topic of TikTok,which they are accessing without an account, in the way I mentioned earlier.For these girls, TikTok is a group activity and a tool for rehearsing anentertaining social demeanor that they can repeat later in higher stakessettings. They all spoke very highly of the importance of this process ingiving them confidence in social situations at school.


First they search through the feed to find aroutine or trope that they particularly like. They then flick through differentvariations of the same sketch to find one that they all agree is particularlypleasing. They watch it a number of times and, as a group, identify what it isthat they like about it and what they think of the person(s) on the screenacting it out. At this point they then take turns to act out this sketch to oneanother, playing the same music from the clip, copying the moves, but alsogiving the performance a bit of their own sense of flair and personality in howit is executed. The two observers fill a coach type role and provideconstructive criticism which the performer takes in good faith, given that theyare in a safe space with their closest friends. The performer then repeats thesketch until they are all content. In this way they build their ability to holdcourt and be ‘the star’ in social situations with their wider school peer thatwon’t be as understanding.


One only needs to look at toy, fashion, andYouTube trends in the UK to find evidence of the pressure that children areunder to look, talk, and act like some kind of star. While the longer-termimpacts of this societal trend and its corresponding media behaviours remain tobe seen, I take some comfort in this anecdote. TikTok provides these girls witha means to adapt to socialization challenges they face, and they instinctivelyknow how to use the tools available to them.

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