Story at a glance
- The social media app TikTok is wildly popular with teenagers, who use it to share creative videos they've made that are just 15 seconds to a minute long.
- Singing sensation Lil Nas X credits the app with the success that drove his song, "Old Town Road," to become the longest-running number one single of all time (beating out Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Madonna).
- The videos teens make are often clever and creative, incorporating lip syncing, dancing, singing and other forms of performance.
- A growing number of schools now have official clubs that help teens make TikTok videos, and teachers are incorporating the platform into lessons.
For years, many educators have shunned social media platforms, often banning them from school settings. But now a new version of an old app is changing the way social media is seen at school, transforming it from an irritating distraction into a tool for creation.
TikTok, the revised version of an app formerly known as Musical.ly, capitalizes on teenagers’ desire to sing and dance, act silly and hang out with friends. The app skyrocketed in popularity after a teenaged singer/songwriter named Montero Lamar Hill, who calls himself Lil Nas X, uploaded the song "Old Town Road" in December of 2018 and it took the music world by storm. TikTok is suddenly the hottest teen craze — and in some schools, it’s also the newest club to join.
West Orange High School, near Orlando, Fla., was one of the first to embrace the trend. There, clubs are student-driven and can exist as long as the students have an advisor. The school has a variety of afterschool clubs ranging from Harry Potter to robotics, from fishing to coding. The school’s new TikTok club fits easily in the lineup.
The club members meet up after school to brainstorm and create videos that are between 15 to 60 seconds long, and often set to music. Dance moves, lip
syncing and acting are all part of the action. The meetings are official and include an agenda and theme, says West Orange teacher Michael Callahan.
“Kate Sandoval (the club president) sets the agenda and theme for each meeting, often by creating a contest for club members,” says Callahan. “The inclusion that this club has provided has been a happy benefit of terrific kids coming in with great attitudes to just have fun.”
Other teachers in the school have harnessed the tool to share information, Callahan says. In some cases, students are using the TikTok app to learn chemistry concepts.
“Now I’m thinking of ways to use this platform in my American Government classes to come up with mnemonic devices to remember things like branches of government,” he says.
Katie Day Good, assistant professor of strategic communication at Miami University in Ohio, thinks TikTok clubs make perfect sense. She sees a strong connection between high school drama clubs and TikTok clubs, because both are places where people go to perform.
“Historically, high school drama has played a critical role in kids’ education because it encourages them to explore the social world through role play, song and dance, performance and imagination,” she says. “TikTok is a new venue where young people are engaging in that kind of imaginative and performative work.”
Joe Sanfelippo, superintendent of Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, embraces social media as a storytelling medium. He uses these platforms himself and believes there is a healthy place for it in students’ lives. Though there is not a TikTok club in their district yet, Sanfelippo has seen students work on videos as if they were making mini-movies.
“What a great opportunity to work together and make something positive,” he says. He knew a lot of kids who used the TikTok precursor, Musical.ly, and has seen a large increase in the use of TikTok.
Lily Paulson and Julia McGinnis, both sophomores at Gig Harbor High School in Washington state, like making TikToks because they say it allows them to be “more real” in the social media world. “I feel like it has more original content, and it's just a fun thing to do with your friends,” says McGinnis.
Paulson pointed out that, unlike Instagram, it’s not just about posting pictures of yourself.
“It’s real; it’s not like a photo shoot for Instagram,” she says.
Though there is no club at their high school, they both agree that it would create an inclusive opportunity to have fun.
Unfortunately, despite it being an organized school-affiliated club, problems do arise. The TikTok club at Fruita Monument High School in Colorado was recently shut down due to inappropriate content being shared through the school’s account.
That isn’t surprising to Paulson and McGinnis. The platform does allow for creativity, which means that sometimes bad videos are made and shared.
“The downside is that people don’t always make the best choices in social media,” Sanfelippo says. “But they don’t always make the best choices in other social platforms either.”
TikTok also has problems with sexual predatory behavior and harassment on the platform, Good says.
Earlier this year, the company had to pay $5.7 million in fines to the Federal Trade Commission for collecting information about children under the age of 13.
“Educators and administrators need to be vigilant about the privacy dimensions of any technology they adopt,” Day says. “Lawmakers should impose tighter regulations on social media companies to ensure they are not violating users’ privacy or handling their data irresponsibly.”
TikTok claims its mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy. It provides tools to educate users and parents on how to set privacy settings that allow users to control who can interact with content. TikTok has a blog series and safety videos.
At West Orange, having an advisor oversee the program may help mitigate issues and steer students towards best practices in the social media world.
“I don’t direct their usage, but as club sponsor I do set expectations,” Callahan says. “They’ve told me that they see TikTok, in particular, as a different type of platform than others in that there’s no drive to show a perfect image to the world.”
In fact, the opposite is true.
“It’s often the unpretentious video showcasing a humorous moment that gets the most likes and goes viral,” he says. “Kids like and embrace that.”