For my social media platform exploration choice, I chose TikTok. As someone who regularly uses Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, I figured this was the logical choice. It’s the one app in this category that I feel just “makes sense” for me to check out, plus it’s definitely the app of choice among my grade 7 students. Becoming familiar with a culture they are immersed in can’t hurt in building relationships and connections!
The first step was creating an account. I quickly realized I had downloaded the app before, but I couldn’t remember why or when. Once I was all signed up, I truly had no idea where to start, so I just started swiping up through videos, stopping and watching ones that intrigued me. To be honest, I wasn’t stopping all that often. I was a little confused about why all of these videos in the “For You” section were often not things I was remotely interested. The content all felt like it was way off my interests or sense of humour. I was having trouble relating to basically everything I was seeing and ultimately just felt confused. This is the point that I started feeling like maybe I was too “old” for this community.
Of course, I understand that all of the content I was seeing is based on algorithms. And I understand that the app was just doing its best to guess what content I would engage with. But this got me thinking – where does an app like this, that’s driven by algorithms, start with new users? What information are they privy to to help guide their decisions?
I checked out this article from the New York Times to become a bit more familiar with the “behind the scenes” of TikTok. Here’s a bit of what I learned:
- TikTok’s parent company is ByteDance, a Chinese technology company that operates a variety of content platforms
- It serves more as entertainment than as connection to friends, a central function of an app like Facebook
- TikTok analyzes how much time users spend watching each video to inform the content that users see in the future
- A kind of disturbing and unsettling quote by Guillaume Chaslot who said “[t]his system means that watch time is key. The algorithm tries to get people addicted rather than giving them what they really want,”. This gave off some serious Social Dilemma vibes.
I then did a bit more perusing of some articles focused on the algorithmic heart of TikTok. Some of what I read touched on the controversy around TikTok and Donald Trump, as well as trying to categorize the app as either positive or negative overall.
The Bright Side
As time went on, and I spent more time engaging with the app, I found myself stopping to watch videos much more often. My “For You” content was starting to feel much more like it was actually for me. I was laughing out loud at some of the videos and shared several with my sister, with whom I share a very similar sense of humour. In those moments I was really quite appreciative of TikTok for providing me with some feel-good content that made me smile and chuckle.
I also started following a few users who posted content for and by teachers which were recommended by some of my ECI831 classmates. I could quickly see how these short videos and reels could provide handy tips and tricks for all things teaching and learning. farmerlovesphonics on TikTok made me especially excited as my daughter is definitely on the brink of being ready for some pre-reading learning, and this user provides some great tips and guidance in this area. This is just a glimpse of what a platform like TikTok can provide for educators, parents, caregivers and the like – a bite-sized, to-the-point example of something to try.
…And the less bright side
I think my opinion on social media for youth is pretty solidified, and my experience with exploring TikTok has only served to support my existing views. A couple of my students were showing me their daily screen times. They were looking at the previous Sunday. One of their times showed over 15 hours, and the other showed over 11. Now I know I’ve spent far too much time on my phone before, and seeing it show over 6 hours definitely makes me feel guilty and honestly a little sick. But seeing that my students are spending over double this in a day is alarming, to say the least. I know this is common for middle year students in this day and age, but seeing the actual time on their screens just hit a little different.
It’s no doubt that kids and teens are more impressionable than adults, and this is why I think the use of apps like TikTok should be monitored, and moderated, for young people. Just like it has for me these past couple of weeks, Tiktok can absolutely provide some feel-good, mood-boosting entertainment. But reading about how algorithms are at work behind the scenes and why they function the way they do leads me to be cautious and skeptical about anyone spending the majority of their waking hours on this app.
I think the safest play when it comes to young people and social media use is encouraging open conversations, teaching proper use and respectful online communication, and setting boundaries. Age limits exist for a reason, and I don’t think social media use should be an exception. Teaching students and children how to do this themselves is an excellent idea, of course, but I think providing some degree of protection and guidance during years of major development is just as important.