As people around the world hunkered down during the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020 they were forced to find ways to fill their free time. Smartphone scrolling became an easy outlet for many. App companies scrambled to get as many people using their apps as soon as possible.
TikTok and its endless variety of short-form video content quickly took center stage. Although it existed well before the pandemic, decreased time outside the house and increased screen time created the perfect conditions for it to take off: TikTok was the most-downloaded app in 2021.
And while most restrictions have been lifted throughout the last two years, TikTok’s vice grip on people’s attention has not. Competing social media platforms continue updating their apps to mirror TikTok, attempting to draw users away.
However, it’s hard to compete with stats like these:
- Three billion downloads worldwide
- 5 million active monthly users
- 8 million daily users in the United States
- 180% growth in early 2020 among users ages 15-25
The app’s widespread use by teens is especially alarming:
- U.S. teens spend an average of 87 minutes per day on TikTok
- 25% of users are ages 10-19
- 24% of users ages 15-25 use TikTok to create and consume video
If you’re the parent of a teenager with a smartphone, you likely have some idea of what TikTok is. If you’re like most parents, you’re probably somewhat concerned about their use of the app, too. And if your teen is like the average teenager in the U.S., they probably spend at least some portion of their day using TikTok.
TikTok offers an overwhelming amount of content for your teen to scroll through and engage with. While plenty of it is interesting, entertaining, and educational, unfortunately, not all of it is positive and uplifting.
Learning more about TikTok and how your teen uses it is an important part of parenting today.
So What Exactly is TikTok?
TikTok is a video-based social media app that allows users to create and share videos with followers around the world. Videos range between 1 and 3 minutes and consist of a wide range of topics, including entertainment, dances, pranks, fitness, sports, DIY projects, skincare routines, fashion, recipes, and more.
Why Do Teens Use It?
TikTok allows people from around the world to share silly dances, swap recipes, find new outfits, and generally enjoy themselves watching short videos. Ultimately, it connects users with a wide variety of people who share similar interests. The algorithm determines user interest based on the videos and users they engage with most and deliver a never-ending feed of videos targeted to their preferences. This helps active micro-communities blossom and come together over almost any niche interest imaginable.
What Does Your Teen Do on TikTok?
Teenagers can use TikTok to learn about a seemingly limitless number of topics. No matter what interests them most, they can likely find a community of people on TikTok who are interested in the same thing. Studying tips, musical theater, lifting weights, cute animals, instrument tutorials – if you can think of it, there’s probably a TikTok vid on it. Your teen likely spends their time either watching videos from other creators or creating videos themselves.
Benefits of TikTok
Not everything about TikTok is negative. The app offers plenty of benefits when used responsibly. On the positive side, TikTok can:
- Encourage creativity and thoughtfulness
- Expose teens to new activities, hobbies, interests, or ideas
- Build community with users around the world who share similar interests
- Help teens learn different things outside their scope of experience
- Present teens an opportunity to build, develop, and then promote a business or product
Those are the benefits – and teens and adults around the world use TikTok every day for the harmless, fun, and often educational and enriching pursuits.
Now let’s talk about the negatives – or the risks – associated with TikTok.
Risks of TikTok
It’s no secret TikTok has its downsides. Some of the risks of teens using TikTok include:
- Exposure to inappropriate, negative, or harmful content
- Participation in dangerous social media challenges
- Experiencing or engaging in cyberbullying
- Oversharing or providing too much private information online
- Possible negative effects on attention span and memory
Like most technology, the real problem is not the technology itself. It’s how people use it. TikTok can be a net positive for teens – if they learn to use it in a healthy and responsible way.
How to Form a Healthy Relationship With TikTok
Branding TikTok as either all good or all bad doesn’t consider the whole picture. With your input and guidance, your teen can engage with TikTok in productive and healthy ways. Here are the things to consider when you think about your teen and TikTok:
1. What Kind of Content Does Your Teen Create?
Monitor the types of videos your teenager makes. Do they make positive, informative, creative content? Or do they post concerning things that suggest something may be wrong? Do they participate in or promote harmful behavior with their content or are they bringing something positive to the world?
2. What Kind of Content Does Your Teen Consume?
The content your teen consumes may be more important than the content they create. Whatever they watch will most likely become something they participate in or engage with in the future. Ongoing exposure to harmful content may cause lasting effects that are still uncertain because of the infancy of the platform.
3. How Much Time is Too Much Time?
Again, kids in the U.S. spend about 87 minutes per day using TikTok. This adds up to 10 hours per week, 40 hours per month, or 520 hours per year. And that doesn’t account for any other social media platforms they may use. The amount of screen time you allow your teen is a personal decision unique to your family. For tips on how to manage scree time for your teen, please consult this helpful guide from the Mayo Clinic.
4. Should You Follow Your Teen?
The final important question to consider is whether you should follow your teen on TikTok. Do you want to regularly monitor the content they post without having to check their phone? Following them may provide an easier way to keep an eye on what they’re doing online. However, it’s easy for your teen to create alternate accounts where they watch and post content they know you wouldn’t approve of.
The best approach to setting limits with your teen and TikTok is to open a conversation on the topic. Tell them you’re concerned about the things they may see, but don’t assume they use the app to consume inappropriate content. Instead, let them know you can be a source of information and guidance as they learn to engage with technology.
A Foundation of Communication and Trust
It’s important to engage in open and honest dialogue with your teen about things that have the potential to cause harm. At the same time, it’s important to support them in pursuits that may be beneficial. TikTok is tricky because it’s both: it can encourage creativity and community and be tons of fun, but it can also lead them to inappropriate content that can have a negative impact.
Therefore, once you set basic ground rules, do your best to develop trust with your teen around their TikTok use. That doesn’t mean giving them free rein over their device use and time on TikTok and other apps, but it does mean providing them space to make mistakes and own up to them when they occur. There is no right or wrong way to parent when it comes to things like TikTok. You’ll learn what works for your family through trial and error, and discover a balance that works for everyone.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.