By Guest Blogger Tara Pitts

You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard about TikTok. Its popularity has exploded over the last year and has been experiencing tons of growth during the quarantine. If you’re not sure exactly what it is, read on to find out all you need to know about this app that already may be on your kid’s phone.

TikTok started out as and it consisted of little snippets of audio, mostly songs, and kids would film themselves mouthing the lyrics. Then slowly died and was reborn as TikTok, a more savvy and user-friendly app than its predecessor with a social media component. When I first downloaded the app last summer out of curiosity, it immediately reminded me of Vine, another popular user-created video app that died a few years ago.  But where Vine videos were only 3 seconds, TikTok videos can be up to 60 total seconds of recording (when linking multiple clips together). In some ways, it shares the same feel of Instagram Stories.

Videos are created using different kinds of audio and run on a constant loop. They could have snippets of songs, audio from a TV show or movie, or be original sounds that other users have uploaded. You can also film an original video with your own sound.

When you open TikTok, you have two options for what you will see. You can see a feed of videos from TikTok users that you follow, or you can scroll through the feed on the “For You” page, which is curated automatically by TikTok based on videos you have “liked” in the past. Each video allows you to swipe to read the user’s bio and see their other videos, as well as follow that user. You can like the video by clicking on a heart and can forward that video to someone you know on TikTok, in an email or text, or in some instances even download it on your phone. You can also select the audio that is being used and then scroll through other videos that use the same audio. This is a way of discovering other TikTok users that you might like to follow. Each video usually has a caption, and users use hashtags in the same way they are used in other social media apps.

Now that you understand what TikTok is, let me give you the lowdown as a parent. I actually like TikTok. It’s pretty entertaining and many videos are downright hilarious. Its users are mostly teenagers, which gives a lot of insight into what it’s like to be a teenager today. Kids are super creative, sometimes snarky, and their videos reflect that. Some users like to do POV videos, which means Point of View. Some of my favorite POV videos are created by a Canadian teen who does hilarious impressions of teachers fussing at their classes. There are also funny clips of teens mouthing the words and acting out various scenes from the Kardashians and other shows. The kids’ versions almost always illustrate how dramatic and ridiculous some things are. There are also the cool dances (every middle schooler can probably dance to Renegade by now) and completely irresistible puppy videos.

All of this sounds pretty great, huh? Well, there are some catches. And they’re big.

First, there is a ton of cursing, in both the songs and just in general. Which is kind of icky to watch, especially when you see sweet young kids mouthing the words and dancing to the trashiest lyrics you’ve never heard. TikTok doesn’t ban these videos and they can come at you out of nowhere as you’re scrolling through the For You feed. And that’s another thing – you never run out of videos. The For You page equals endless scrolling. Watching the videos can be equated to gambling in a darkened casino – you walk out in the sunshine and realize you’ve been at it for hours.

Something else to keep in mind about TikTok is that anyone can make an account and watch the videos unless a user chooses to make their content private. You would not believe the number of videos out there with adorable 17-year-old girls dancing around in tiny crop tops, all who have made their videos public. Anyone can watch them and DM (direct message) someone on the app when an account is public. That’s pretty scary.

Lastly, each video has the option of enabling comments. The comments become part of the experience, as many users like to see what others have to say about a video and add their two cents. Usually, the comments are pretty funny in and of themselves, but occasionally the comments can be harsh. I can see how it could be used to bully someone. I have found that TikTok users tend to self-police trolls and bullying and usually someone is shot down if they say something mean.

So, should you allow your pre-teen or teen to download TikTok? In our house, my fifteen-year-old has it on her phone and my twelve-year-old is allowed to watch it with me on my phone. I can self-select the videos my youngest watches by only following clean accounts and letting her watch those with me. I don’t allow my children to curse and I don’t want them watching videos laced with cursing or sexual references, so I have some parameters and rules in place about how they both use TikTok. Accounts must be private, I have to be able to follow them, and if I disapprove of a video she has made, it must be taken down.

Overall, parents need to know that the content on TikTok is mostly PG-13 and with the language, definitely R-rated at times. Allowing kids to watch TikTok or create their own videos can be a fun way for them to express their creativity and connect with friends. But, the online safety built-in to TikTok is probably not enough for most parents. My advice is to download it, scroll through the For You page and decide for yourself if its best for your household. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Once you start scrolling TikTok, you may end up dancing to Renegade as you make dinner!

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