What teachers should know about TikTok
TikTok. I’m shaking my head right now as I write this. I have a definite love-hate relationship with this app.
Last fall, one of my best journalism students wanted to create a TikTok video featuring homecoming week. She put together a really breathtaking compilation of videos and music, giving everyone goosebumps who watched it.
Before this, I was skeptical about downloading the TikTok app — but I thought, if my student is using it for a creative outlet, maybe I should try to learn more about it.
The app is strangely addicting, and in my few months on TikTok, I’ve run into the spectrum of videos: hilariously clean entertainment to extremely inappropriate content (swearing, vandalism, etc.).
I’ve seen teachers and parents caught off guard, potentially unaware that they are being recorded. I’ve seen kids swearing up a storm, and doing awful things in public: vandalizing stores and more — just as a way to promote their videos.
But, I’ve also seen heartwarming content featuring four-generation family videos, hilarious dog videos that make me belly laugh, and teacher TikTok videos that make me chuckle after a long day of work. (Yes, there are many teachers using TikTok!)
I want to share some of the information I’ve learned while being on this app — the good, the bad, and the ugly — so I’ve compiled what I’ve learned below. I realize that TikTok can be extremely polarizing, but I would encourage teachers to learn as much as possible about this app because our students are using it daily.
1. TikTok has questionable, inappropriate, and sometimes dangerous content
My first day on TikTok, my jaw dropped constantly when I heard the language and content that came up on my newsfeed. I thought, “Wow, my parents would have never allowed me to talk or act like this in high school–how is this now normal?!!”
I don’t see as much swearing now on the app — which I’m not sure is due to TikTok’s improved filtering OR due to TikTok not recommending those types of videos to me.
In addition to language concerns, students are also doing rude, cringeworthy, and sometimes dangerous things–the skull-breaker challenge, dropping jugs of milk on the floor of the grocery store, hacking into public speaker systems, filming teachers without their knowledge, throwing food at cars, and the list could go on. Some of these videos could be staged, but overall, I worry about how they could encourage others to follow suit.
2. Students may inconspicuously film TikToks during class.
We recently had a teacher at our school “go viral” when unbeknownst to him, a student took a video of him in class and posted it to TikTok. The teacher was mortified, and it was clear from the video that he didn’t realize he was being filmed.
While on TikTok, I’ve seen many teachers get filmed, and I’m guessing many didn’t realize that they were going public on the app. In one trend, students walk around and call their teachers by their first name and then film their teacher’s reaction.
I’ve also seen students ask a teacher questions like, “Name three items that you use every day.” And, they film the teacher as the teacher typically names three items that they use besides the subject they teach. The students usually end with, “I notice you didn’t say algebra…(or English or science, etc.).” While these are funny and the teacher usually elicits a good-natured laugh afterwards, I wonder if the teachers realize the video is going up on TikTok.
I’ve seen videos on TikTok of students doing a mini-renegade dance as class is happening in the background, with arm movements so subtle a teacher would not likely notice. I’ve seen videos of teachers yelling, and videos of students admitting during class that they have cheated. In these cases, based on the filming style, I would guess that teachers would not have realized students were creating TikToks in their classroom.
3. Students may also openly film TikToks around the school or during class.
If you see a phone propped up on a window sill with students dancing in front of it, they may be filming a TikTok.
I saw a student leaning halfway inside of a locker yesterday, and I thought, “What is he doing?” But, then, when he emerged from the locker, I saw that he had propped his phone up inside so that he could start his TikTok filming.
In my homeroom class, I’ve had two girls prop up their phone behind a textbook and make a TikTok during class. I called them out in a friendly way and said, “Are you tik-toking???” and they smiled and said, “How did you know?!”
These students weren’t trying to hide their TikTok filming, but if I wasn’t on the app, I might not have realized what they were doing. Understanding the app has been key to recognizing this trend at school.
4. Some students film teachers and parents for fun — beware.
This goes along with the inconspicuous filming mentioned above, but I wanted to mention it again — and point out the “for fun” part more clearly. Some TikTok trends involve baiting parents or teachers into saying something funny, and that “funny thing” could be something inappropriate.
For example, with the “Read it Challenge,” the student/child hands a paper to a teacher/parent and says, “Read these words.” The words — separately — won’t make sense, but when they are read together FAST, the phrase will say something else — typically inappropriate. Think: Apples to Apples, but with a more Cards against Humanity topic spin.
While this can be fun on its own, the filming and public nature of TikTok makes this trend worrisome. I don’t know if the parents or teachers who get involved with this understand that the video may be for a public forum, like TikTok.
Now, when a student asks me to do something that may appear strange — such as this “Read it Challenge,” I refuse and call them out, “Is this for TikTok???” and they sheepishly say, “No….”
I think it’s important for teachers to try to stay up on the TikTok trends to be able to recognize them — and to be aware that students may be filming the reaction as shareable TikTok content.
5. TikTok will fill your newsfeed with videos related to you.
TikTok must know I’m a teacher because my newsfeed is FILLED with teacher TikTok videos. And, also pets. The TikTok pet videos bring instant joy to my life!
You can help TikTok curate content to your interests by “liking” videos, exploring and following hashtags that interest you, and by following accounts you like and enjoy.
It can take some time and persistence, however, for TikTok to really “know” you — and in the meantime, you (or your children or your students) may be exposed to provocative or inappropriate content while it learns your content preferences.
6. TikTok has fun challenges that you could do with your students as a bonding activity or reward.
If you are not completely turned off to trying TikTok, you could harness its power and use it for good. Students would love if you made a TikTok video with them as an incentive or reward.
TikTok has many clean and fun trending video options, and you could easily be using TikTok in your classroom before you know it — your students will be able to help you find some fun ideas, and you can also check out popular TikTok-ers like Charli D’Amelio to keep up with the latest trends.
Some TikTok trends could involve the whole class, a small group, or just you. Choose someone to film who won’t make your video public (unless you want it to go public) and state your intentions (public vs. private video) clearly before you start.
If you want to post the video for your students but NOT post it publically, you could ask the filming student to download the video and share it with your class’s learning management system (Upload to Google Classroom, Canvas, etc.).
7. TikTok holds marketing power — and as we teach media literacy, it can be an app we harness for the positive
Regardless of our feelings — positive, neutral, or negative — towards the TikTok app, the app is growing by leaps and bounds. Depending on the grade level, we can strategically teach our students how to use this app for GOOD and how to harness its positive aspects.
In my journalism and yearbook class, students have used TikTok for marketing purposes. They brainstorm and pitch video ideas to each other, decide on content, execute the video, upload to various platforms (TikTok, Instagram, SnapChat, and our school announcements), and analyze results.
With younger grades, teachers might have a classroom private account that they control. Students can brainstorm ideas for videos and content creation — and the teacher guides the filming and editing process, making sure students are not exposed to questionable content.
With older grades, students can be given more freedom to openly create content. Teachers can design the lesson and expectations, providing a framework for content creation.
Teachers who integrate TikTok into their lessons should openly communicate with parents and administrators as some stakeholders may not want students on this app, even for school-related activities. I would recommend having a back-up assignment ready for students who are not allowed to use this app.
8. TikTok has privacy settings to add a level of safety.
TikTok users have the choice to make their accounts public — and visible to everyone — or private. If you have a private account, people can request to follow you, and you can choose whether to approve them or not.
9. TikTok is growing by leaps and bounds
As mentioned above, TikTok is growing — and growing fast. Its user base is rivaling Facebook and Instagram, and at the time of this article, TikTok is the most downloaded app in the Apple App Store.
What TikTok looks like when you set it up
- A simple, easy sign up process — The clean interface was a pleasant surprise. It contrasts with the “busy” and sometimes overwhelming nature of the video feed
- Birthday required — I may or may not have used my real birthday…I’m a little uncomfortable with sharing too many personal details with apps…
- Email or phone sign up required — I chose to use an email rather than my phone number.
- Blank slate home screen — Once again, I appreciate the clean interface of the homescreen.
- Camera and microphone permission required — When I started to create my first video, I had to give TikTok permission to access my camera and microphone.
- Privacy tips after making the first video — After finishing my first video (of my puppies), TikTok reminded me that my account was public, and that I had the option to change my account in the privacy settings.
TikTok is an app that teachers, administrators, parents, grandparents, etc. should learn about and understand — your students and children are likely already using it, even if you don’t know about it. And, if they aren’t using it, their friends most likely are.
It’s part of their daily lives, and I want to encourage teachers to learn about the app and understand its features — the good, bad, and ugly. As with so many social media platforms, it’s how a person uses it that determines its core qualities and value.