Will Acker

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3.3.2020

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6 mins

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 1 billion users), is anything from huge commercial opportunity, to a cyber-security risk, 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 a few hypotheses!

While views about TikTok vary wildly, there is consensus that it is a very big deal. A lot of what contributes to the intense sense of excitement or apprehension that surrounds this platform is the fact that it is almost completely incomprehensible to anyone that isn’t a user. A big 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 about TikTok. One only needs to look at adult celebrities trying to join the party and how much their content misses the mark (ahem! Will Smith) to realize quite how much TikTok is for the younger generations, by the younger generations.

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

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

During a recent in-home research session with three nine-year-old girls I gained an insight into child use of TikTok that I thought was particularly interesting. Before getting to the core research questions, we spent some time talking about their favourite films, games and things 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 an entertaining social demeanor that they can repeat later in higher stakes settings. They all spoke very highly of the importance of this process in giving them confidence in social situations at school.

First they search through the feed to find a routine or trope that they particularly like. They then flick through different variations of the same sketch to find one that they all agree is particularly pleasing. They watch it a number of times and, as a group, identify what it is that they like about it and what they think of the person(s) on the screen acting it out. At this point they then take turns to act out this sketch to one another, playing the same music from the clip, copying the moves, but also giving the performance a bit of their own sense of flair and personality in how it is executed. The two observers fill a coach type role and provide constructive criticism which the performer takes in good faith, given that they are in a safe space with their closest friends. The performer then repeats the sketch until they are all content. In this way they build their ability to hold court and be ‘the star’ in social situations with their wider school peer that won’t be as understanding.

One only needs to look at toy, fashion, and YouTube trends in the UK to find evidence of the pressure that children are under to look, talk, and act like some kind of star. While the longer-term impacts of this societal trend and its corresponding media behaviours remain to be seen, I take some comfort in this anecdote. TikTok provides these girls with a means to adapt to socialization challenges they face, and they instinctively know how to use the tools available to them.