It’s talked about so much that even if you aren’t on the popular social media platform, chances are, you’ve heard of TikTok. It’s one of the trendiest things out there, and its prevalence is undeniable. We can’t help but ask the question, why is TikTok so popular?
Wait…what is it?
In a nutshell, it’s Twitter meets YouTube: user-generated content in the form of short, 15-60 second videos. You can see videos without a profile on their web browser, and when users create a profile, they can set some preferences. There is a Safety Center for Parents, a webpage with Community Guidelines, and other resources available on their website, as well.
They have advanced algorithms that determine what kind of videos you are shown — everything from financial advice, a woman dancing in a G-string bikini, baking demonstrations, fashion experts, cute monkey videos, adorable babies doing silly things, and so on. The list of topics seems endless.
If you are still baffled by the big boom this has made over the past couple of years, we want to help! This blog walks through what this platform is and discusses information parents might find helpful as they decide if TikTok is safe for their kids.
Why is TikTok so popular? It seems to know what you like more than you even know what you like.
You might not want to admit that you follow a certain celebrity on TikTok. You never click on anything they post or share their videos. But you watch them. Every. Single. One. Sometimes twice. With TikTok, despite the fact that you never engage with content, you are still shown more of that content because it knows you are watching.
“TikTok’s popularity, especially with Gen Z, has to do with its algorithm and easy-to-use platform,” said an LA Times article.
On the flip side, for example, you, perhaps, talk about following financial news. Those videos are in your newsfeed, too, because of the preferences that you choose. However, you don’t watch those all the time and certainly don’t watch the videos twice.
Eventually, you’d get served less financial news content and more content from or about your favorite celebrity. According to an article in The New York Times, “It’s full of things that you seem to have demonstrated you want to watch, no matter what you actually say you want to watch.”
It learns from your habits and continually creates a personalized experience for you, one you will enjoy more and more. The same NY Times article goes on to say, “It is constantly learning from you and, over time, builds a presumably complex but opaque model of what you tend to watch, and shows you more of that, or things like that, or things related to that…”
Each time you scroll over a video, if you pause on it long enough, the algorithm takes notice.
It tracks your habits, ones you may not even know or want to admit you have, and then serves you more and more content like that — content that the algorithms indicate will keep you scrolling.
The day this blog was written, I went to TikTok’s homepage to see what content they would show me without a profile. I refreshed the page nearly a dozen times and scrolled as consistently as possible through about a dozen or so videos. My goal was to not linger on any single one specifically to try to get a sense of what is first shown to someone, without influencing the algorithm.
Let’s pause and note that I love to bake. I also love chocolate. And I did this just before lunchtime. There was a cake-in-a-mug video that used a kind of cookie I like. I didn’t think I watched more of that video than others, but if I’m honest, I kind of did. Maybe? I was hungry; it was chocolate…and, remember, I love to bake.
Well, that particular video was the one that showed up nearly every time I refreshed the page after that. No other kind of videos were repeated like that. And I can’t help but wonder if I watched it just a little longer than the others. This was not a large, scientific analysis or survey of TikTok users, but it was my experience today.
This is one reason that it can be so time-consuming and popular. It knows what you like. It’s like getting the “best meal ever” served to you at every meal. For free. Whenever you are at all hungry. In an instant. Without having to ask or articulate what sounds good at that exact moment. It just arrives in front of you, paired with the perfect beverage. Why wouldn’t you go back for more when you are a little hungry?
Why is TikTok so popular? You can get famous fast.
Other social media networks, like Facebook, grow your audience by growing your friends or followers. The more friends you have or the more people that follow you — the larger audience you have. Sure, you can make your profile public, but someone still has to choose to connect with you unless you show up in a search field or have sponsored (paid) content.
“TikTok instead encourages users to jump from audience to audience, trend to trend, creating something like simulated temporary friend groups, who get together to do friend-group things: to share an inside joke; to riff on a song; to talk idly and aimlessly about whatever is in front of you. Feedback is instant and frequently abundant; virality has a stiff tailwind. Stimulation is constant. There is an unmistakable sense that you’re using something that’s expanding in every direction. The pool of content is enormous. Most of it is meaningless. Some of it becomes popular, and some is great, and some gets to be both.”
—How TikTok Is Rewriting the World, by The New York Times
Videos can go viral without having a larger following, and users can jump on the bandwagon of challenges to get their content seen by millions in microseconds. You don’t have to have a huge following for someone to see the video you make. If you duet or stitch with someone famous, then your video is attached to theirs, and others who want to watch it will see yours, too. You can get famous faster.
(Wondering what it means to challenge, stitch, or duet on TikTok? Read our blog called Is TikTok Safe for Kids? It explains more about how it works and what these terms are.)
Why is TikTok so popular? You don’t have to risk being original to share content.
Ironically, it dilutes individuality and creates a safe place for the self-conscious to express themselves.
It’s daring to put a new idea out there. Everyone knows that. Starting a trend is reserved for the bold, the popular, and the ones who are willing to take the risk or fail to even consider it. But for most teenagers, putting something original out into the world for everyone to criticize is terrifying.
That’s not a feeling that’s reserved for youth, either. Most adults, if honest, would agree that creating something original and then sharing it isn’t the easiest thing to do. You’re not sure what to create and not completely confident that you want unfiltered feedback from the faceless usernames online who can be quite unkind at times.
TikTok takes away the risk of having to be too original by inviting users to emulate challenges.
They can see something that is already gaining popularity and jump on the bandwagon to ride the waves of acceptance and praise that were unleashed by the first person who posted.
According to an article in The New York Times, “The result is an endless unspooling of material that people, many very young, might be too self-conscious to post on Instagram, or that they never would have come up with in the first place without a nudge.”
This is done because one person — perhaps a famous teenager whose full-time job is to post TikTok videos — will do something that goes viral, such as a certain dance move to a certain song. Then, if you want to do the same thing, you record yourself doing the same dance move to the same song. Boom! You have created content that you can post with your name.
You use the hashtag from the challenge, and you know that it’s already “cool” without having to risk doing something that others won’t like. It gets added to the collection of videos with that hashtag, and if the video is public, you can be seen by anyone who searches for that hashtag or is served content with that hashtag. Certain “challenges” have become incredibly popular.
This presents an environment young people are being molded and shaped by a social media platform that seeks “to inspire creativity” by funneling users toward cookie-cutter content seeking approval for their “originality.”
Why is TikTok so popular? The endless scroll, the hours spent, and — dare we say it — the addictive qualities
It just doesn’t stop. The Energizer Bunny might have some competition. The content that you like, served up to you specifically never ends. Literally. Combine that with the videos that are tailored for you, and it’s hard to stop watching. So people, especially Gen Zers, don’t. They keep watching and keep creating.
Kids spend an average of 80 minutes per day on the app. If you do the math, that’s over 9 hours per week, 486 hours per year, or 20 days per year watching videos on TikTok. That’s not including other apps, social media, videos, and so on.
The continual nature of content available and the hours spent on it can actually be addicting.
According to one article, “rewards are treated in the midbrain with a dopamine response just as an intake of foods high in sugar, fat and salt is. This is both true for the consumption, but also for the anticipation for such a reward.”
The same article goes onto say that “the platform makes susceptible to the kid of expected stimulus seen in addiction” and “is constantly reinforced by supplying us with more appropriately recommended videos.”
What do you do with this, especially if you are a parent?
You know your kid better than anyone, and as a parent, you love them and want good things for them. You know what kind of social media they can handle responsibly, and you have the opportunity to speak with them about what it means to be a wise digital citizen.
Canopy’s mission is to inspire a world of healthy tech users, and it can be helpful to talk bout what that looks like for your family, including if and how you will use parental control apps.
We’ve even created a template for a Family Technology Agreement that you can discuss and complete with your kids to make sure that you’re all on the same page with exceptions for how you will use devices and interact with the digital world.
And, perhaps, the next time your kid wants to make a video of something like sitting on the floor and spinning around for the microwave challenge, you’ll “get it” a little more.