President Donald Trump just announced he was considering banning the popular social media app, TikTok, as “one of many” options to punish China over coronavirus.
This would surely make a lot of American kids unhappy (the app today is used by 69% of U.S. kids). TikTok, as you should know if you have kids or know any kids, is the video-sharing social media app that lets users make and post 15–60 second clips set to popular music and/or sound bites. It is hugely popular with youth, especially with Gen Z’ers (those born between 1995 and 2015). It has 800 million active users worldwide (yes, you read that right).
TikTok has been high on our radar this summer as we’re knee-deep into our annual update of the Cyber Civics curriculum. Already we had added TikTok’s privacy agreement into our 7th grade “Personal Information” unit because, we figured, why not have students discover for themselves how much personal information TikTok collects and what it does with it? That way they can decide for themselves if using the app is worth the personal information price they pay for it (believe it or not, many decide it is not).
This year it was also impossible to overlook what many are calling “TikTok activism."
TikTok is a little different from other apps youth love, like Snapchat and Instagram, in that the user’s main feed displays content from people the user doesn’t even know (this is something most parents are not thrilled about). What this means for youth is their content can potentially reach a humongous audience. Partly because of this feature, what was originally considered primarily an entertaining, silly, and sometimes raunchy platform for wanna-be performers, has transformed, at least partly, into a place where youth can share socially-relevant content and practice activism.
The most recent and high profile example of this is President Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music groups (called K-pop fans) unhappy about a rally being held smack in the middle of a global pandemic, set out to sabotage the event. Here’s what those crafty kids did: When Trump’s official campaign account on Twitter—@TeamTrump—posted a tweet encouraging supporters to sign up for free tickets to the rally, K-pop fans told their followers to register for the event, but not show up. The objective was to leave Trump staring at a bunch of empty seats. This idea quickly found its way to TikTok, where users posted videos carrying the same message and racked up millions of views. We all know what happened next.
Trump campaign chairman Brad Parscale tried to blame the rally’s poor attendance on “radical protestors,” but congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez disagreed, posting on Twitter:
“Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake tickets …”
There’s All Kinds of Activism Happening on TikTok
It’s important to note that TikTok activism happens all over the political spectrum and covers a myriad of issues, here are a few examples:
A teen in Clark County, Nevada, used TikTok to organize a strike to help her teachers get the raises they were promised.
Like all of us, youth are living through stressful and uncertain times. Social media apps, like TikTok, give them a place to connect with their peers and to express their anxieties, fears, and even their hopes for a brighter future.
"TikTok is an outlet for users to express themselves," Vanessa Pappas, general manager of TikTok US, told CNN in a statement. "This expression is often joyful, but our community is going through a time of particularly deep anguish and outrage, and much of the content on the app this week clearly reflects those experiences."
Agents of Change
Henry Jenkins is the author of "Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change," a book that takes a deep look at how youth view themselves as possible agents of change. According to Jenkins, “Young people today are getting and acting on the news through the same channels through which they engage in social interactions with their friends. And they are relying on their friends for insights about the issues that they care about. Often, they are applying skills learned through their recreational lives as fans, gamers, skateboarders, what have you, to try to change the world. And in this context, they are also using a vernacular adopted from popular culture as the entry point into their generation's civic imagination.”
In other words, don’t discount what this generation is capable of accomplishing, even as they remain largely sequestered from their peers and find lots of free time on their hands. Expect youth to express the angst we’re all feeling in unique and creative ways. We remind ourselves of this daily as we keep the end goal of Cyber Civics in mind: To teach kids how to use technology ethically, safely, and most all productively. That means helping them understand how to leverage today’s powerful technologies to learn new things, to inspire and be inspired by others, and to advocate for things they are passionate about.
Even if TikTok were to go away tomorrow, kids would still find online spaces to express themselves. And that’s more than alright.
Diana Graber, author of "Raising Humans is a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology" (HarperCollins Leadership), is the founder of Cyber Civics and co-founder of Cyberwise.