Earlier this year, my younger daughter, who’d just turned 9, started asking me to install an app on my phone called TikTok.
There are a lot of apps my kids ask to try from time to time on my phone or their iPad, from games where you drive dangerously around in a honking virtual car to “Harry Potter” stuff to word scrambles and puzzle apps. My older daughter of late has started playing with home design apps, no doubt inspired by her addiction to HGTV’s “Property Brothers.” (Should an 11-year-old know that granite counters might devalue a four-bedroom/two-bathroom house you’re trying to flip in New Jersey? I submit that perhaps she should not. And I digress.)
TikTok was different because I’d actually heard of it. By the end of 2018, it was starting to break out of the crowded pack of social media services that will never be competitive with Facebook or Instagram. By now, it's been installed over a billion times across Android and Apple phones. It has become a reliable generator of memes and is partially responsible for the popularity of the country/trap hit song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X.
The app was quickly gaining traction, making it something like the new, trendy Snapchat, but I didn’t know exactly why. I’d never used TikTok; I knew only vaguely that it had something to do with music and maybe lip-syncing.
My kids don’t have the iTunes password, so everything that gets installed for their use needs parental approval. So, the approval process began.
I did some research. I knew that, as with Facebook and Twitter, kids under 13 are not allowed to sign up for an account. Plenty do, of course; YouTube and Instagram are filled with little kids trying to become preteen influencers by making slime or unboxing Disney toys, some under parents’ watch, others obviously not. At least one study suggests that more than half of kids have a social media presence by the age of 12.
But my daughter wasn’t really asking for her own account, she just wanted to see the funny, cute videos people posted and to try to make her own.
With growing curiosity, I installed TikTok on my iPhone. And I spent a few days trying to absorb its culture and see what was there.
You know that feeling you get when you buy your kid a Christmas toy you never got as a child and you get an overwhelming urge to open it yourself before the kid gets their Goldfish-cracker-caked hands on it (and, let’s face it, probably breaks the toy)?
That was how I felt as I explored TikTok.
I saw people make beautiful stop-motion-animated drawings.
I saw people do ridiculous, probably dangerous stunts set to music I knew from memes.
I saw a lot. And I could easily see the appeal.
To me, TikTok feels a lot like the early days of Vine, a video app released in 2012 that allowed users to make six-second videos with a variety of then-novel tricks such as stop-motion recording. Rather than being a huge detriment, the six-second limit actually unleashed a flood of creativity. Vine made comedy videos shorter and punchier, it required musicians to create catchy, quick-hit hooks, and it made verbose talkers get to the point.
TikTok doesn’t have that kind of strict time limit. Videos can be 15 seconds long or strung together to make one-minute epics.
It combines a lot of the best features from other popular apps, such as the stop-motion that made Vine a hit, face filters that are reminiscent of Snapchat, and the same kinds of likes/comments/following options and endless feeds you’d find on Instagram.
But something about the mix of those features, the way it makes editing complex videos so easy that my 9-year-old can make something remarkable in a few quick swipes and button presses, has wowed me.
As a family, we had to decide how this technology was going to be incorporated into our lives. It’s not a perfect solution, but here’s what we came up with:
I created a TikTok account under my own name and profile photo that my 9-year-old could contribute to with my permission.
My daughter could browse TikTok videos but was required to let me know if she saw anything inappropriate so we could report it. Maybe we’re lucky or the algorithm is somehow working to shield, but so far neither of us have seen anything on the platform that has warranted this action. In fact, of all the mainstream social networks I use, it’s the one I’ve so far found the safest to view with kids.
Any video my daughter created to publish had to go through me first, and she’s not allowed to post anything that would allow her to be identified. That means she can post videos of our cat Chuy being adorable, footage from the family fish tank and stop-motion videos of her drawings or words she writes down, but nothing that features her face can be published publicly.
Any videos that do feature her face are set to private and only we can view them. If she wants to show them to a friend, she can do it in person on her device. She can’t send them via email or messaging.
All friend/follower requests have to be approved by a parent.
Break the rules and the account will be deactivated or I’ll remove access to the app.
There need to be time limits on using the app. Homework and household chores have to be done before TikTok can be used.
These rules aren’t perfect, and my kid, who is incredibly smart about skirting set guidelines, has already tried to find ways to circumvent them, such as changing the account bio information when I wasn’t looking. And we haven’t always agreed on when it’s time to put down the iPad and do other things. But over a couple of months, we’ve settled into a mostly peaceful coexistence with TikTok.
I’ve found my kid’s visual creativity blossom with TikTok. In addition to the painting, slime-making, drawing and story writing she does offline, she’s turned into a gifted little amateur filmmaker, setting up video shoots in her room with lamp lighting, pre-drawn signage and the use of her budding voice talents. She’s developing skills in learning how to time video footage to preexisting audio, filming herself in multiple roles as if she’s creating her own, private one-woman comedy show.
Sometimes she includes me or her sister, but most often she’s capturing her own ideas out loud and on camera, or finding the visuals she wants to pair with a song she loves.
These aren’t videos that the public will see, but they make me laugh or sigh with pride. They’ve become another creative outlet for her.
When I was about her age, back in the mid-1980s, I became obsessed with a program called “The Print Shop” for my Commodore computer that helped you to make your own cards, stationery and even crude little newsletters to output on your home dot-matrix printer. With software like this and other programs in my teens, I remember making my own rudimentary versions of a family newspaper, setting column widths and writing headlines such as “Omar Publishes First Edition!”
I have no doubt those early days of micropublishing led to a career in journalism.
I could be a lot stricter about social media in my house. I could ban apps that give me trepidation and that my daughter doesn’t strictly need in her life.
But when I see what she can do with these new skills, how quickly she’s able to harness them to give voice to her thoughts and ideas, it’s thrilling. It’s less about the online space and all the people on it than her finding the tools to best express herself and begin to define her identity, offline as well as on.
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