Rarely does a day pass without TikTok mentioned in the media: whether it is a report of the latest viral video, a social media influencer’s shocking behaviour , or the platform itself allegedly failing to protect children’s safety and data , all of which leave many adults worried and puzzled at the appeal of the platform. For children, however, when it comes to TikTok, it is a different story altogether.
From modern karaoke to digital activism
For the uninitiated, TikTok is a social media platform providing free access to viewing, creating and sharing short videos, often along with a soundtrack. TikTok is optimised for mobile use, probably best described as “karaoke for the digital age” . For those enjoying watching or creating video content, with limited time, or short attention spans, TikTok is particularly appealing since all the videos are very short (from 15 seconds up to three minutes) while creating and posting them is quick and effortless.
Although often seen as a typical ‘frivolous’ social media platform, TikTok has also been linked to more serious issues, such as supporting social campaigns and youth political expression, from involvement in the BlackLivesMatter movement , environmental issues to engaging voters in the last American election  along with fostering serious discussions on issues such as mental health .
By 2020 it was evident that for many kids, TikTok had become a primary , if not the dominant  social media platform, although academic and industry research to date has focused heavily on Instagram and YouTube. In addition, previous research  has thoroughly covered adolescents’ experiences and behaviour, but younger children’s (12 and younger) digital worlds are still greatly unexplored. That’s where we step in!
Friends and family, fun and fascinating
Our preliminary qualitative research adopted an exploratory mindset, focusing on the under-explored experiences of children aged 9 – 12, often referred to as tweens, while they navigate social media influencers’ content across all platforms. This is the first phase of a larger study conducted in 2020, which included six focus groups of 30 Irish children.
How popular is TikTok with the children in our study?
First, let us once again confirm that, yes, TikTok is immensely popular among tweens. Children use TikTok regularly, many of our young participants are creating and posting content, and some even attract a modest following themselves. Having access to either smartphones or tablets, they find it easy to follow various influencers, as well as engage with their family and friends.
What do the children in our study do on TikTok?
In addition to creating personal accounts, some set up joint accounts with their friends, and unlike other platforms where they are passive users of the media, many regularly create their lip-syncing, dance or duet videos, often sharing them with their friends and family. Funny, entertaining and musically catching content appears to be the favourite type for kids, frequently using the “follow” feature to ensure they do not miss out on new content. Although keeping up to date with well-known influencers’ videos is entertaining for children in its own way, kids also use the info as conversation points in their social circles. Friends tend to follow the same influencers, so shared interests and being in the loop are key here. Friends are also used as agents of verification processes when seeking interesting and follow-worthy TikTok creators.
Keeping up with the influencers
In listening to their discussions about the influencers, it was evident in our study that children are kept abreast of all that is happening in the HypeHouse (think of it as a Big Brother House for teen TikTok influencers, where trending TikTokers live together for a while, ensuring they continue to post and engage with their audiences), the latest news, scandals and trending dance moves. Not only are the children using TikTok to keep up to date with their favourite influencers and friends, but they are also well-versed in the current jargon (referring to influencers as creators, commercial products as merch, etc). Kids clearly distinguish the concepts of “followers” and “views”, commercially motivated content and how it all links to popularity.
Age restrictions are overlooked (we know, we know – gasp!)
The minimum user age for TikTok is thirteen, in addition to the Digital Age of Consent being sixteen years of age in Ireland, meaning that the parent or guardian has to provide consent to how the child’s data is processed. Children from our study, despite being under the required minimum age threshold, expressed no difficulties in opening TikTok accounts, which is consistent with other studies and quite frankly, did not make us gasp in surprise . What this means is that kids have access to the full range of services that are not designed for their age group, without any restrictions. This should be concerning, especially in light of recent multiple complaints3, alleging that TikTok is in breach of consumer laws. TikTok has failed to protect children from inappropriate content and hidden commercial messages, a frequent feature in influencers’ posts and viral content .
Recently, TikTok updated privacy settings for children aged 13-17, ensuring private-by-default settings, restricting direct messaging, comments and commercial functions and disabled sending virtual gifts to users below eighteen . Nevertheless, concerns remain, since (drum roll, please!) in most cases, children bypass the age-verification process . In simpler terms – kids lie about their age, and robust age-verification methods just don’t work.
While this short blog post cannot cover all the aspects of our study, detailing children’s media literacy skills regarding privacy, and navigating inappropriate and commercial content, we call for a balanced and informed approach to children in the online environment, one supported by evidence and not anecdotes.
Our preliminary findings illustrate that, like adults, children too are using the digital environment “as a mediator and enabling factor for the expression of agency” , availing of the creative and participatory nature of social media, allowing them the space to have fun, connect with their friends and family, and explore. In other words, kids use TikTok as their playground, and why not? It is our collective responsibility to help make those spaces safe and design them with children in mind . It means ensuring that kids’ privacy and access to communication with them is guaranteed by default. Children’s data should not be exploited for advertising, with the platforms taking a more proactive role in creating safer online spaces for children. This also means equipping children with the critical skills to navigate contemporary digital environments and developing digital literacies.
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About the authors
Fardus Sultan is a lecturer in Marketing and Business Computing in Technological University Dublin.
She is currently undertaking a PhD in children, social media influencers and media literacy. She also holds an MSc in Cyberpsychology and BA (Hons) in Politics and Languages, and regularly delivers digital literacy workshops for children, parents and professionals working with children.
Email for correspondence: fardus.sultan[at]tudublin.ie
Dr Valerie Gannon is a Lecturer in Advertising in the School of Marketing, College of Business, Technological University Dublin. She holds degrees from University College Cork (BA, MA), a Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing (Technological University Dublin) and her PhD is from University College Dublin Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.
Twitter @ValerieGannon (https://twitter.com/ValerieGannon)
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