“Today you can be the king.” These words were sent to my smartphone recently in a vain attempt to encourage me to log on to the TikTok app, which I do not use on a daily basis as I do with my favourite social-media apps. It seems that the app, which uses the “TikTok: Make Your Day” logo, knows how to caress the dreams of teenagers, however, providing them with tools that promise fame with the minimum of effort.
Alex Zhou, co-founder and CEO of the firm that produces TikTok, said that the idea of the application came into his mind when he was on a train. As the train stopped, Zhou glimpsed a group of teenagers split into two smaller groups, one listening to music and the other taking selfies and videos and sharing them with friends on social media. The scene inspired him with the idea of combining music, videos, and social networking in a single application, and it was this brilliant mix, later renamed TikTok, that became an obsession of millions of adolescent users around the globe.
TikTok today is a free app that helps users to create short videos and share them on social media. It is considered one of the most popular apps among teenagers worldwide, being the age group that constitutes the vast majority of its users. TikTok is available in 34 languages and has more than 500 million monthly active users in 150 countries around the world.
It was first launched in 2016 by Chinese tech firm Beijing ByteDance. In 2018, it merged with another Chinese company named Musical.ly, famous for the production of short music videos, and that collaboration made TikTok a popular app among teenagers and members of Generation Z.
Today, the application provides its users with easy tools to create, edit and share videos with friends, family and others. Users can gain millions of fans by shooting short videos ranging between 15 and 60 seconds with various effects in their own homes. The most famous are called “sync the lips”, in which users sing popular songs while syncing their lips and facial expressions to the beats of the original songs.
There are also duets, in which the user collaborates with another person to sing and act and the screen appears to be split in half with the two users appearing on both sides, with one lip-syncing and mimicking almost the same movements as the other. The application also has video “challenges” that more often than not involve many users, as was the case with one recent one called “uncapping the bottle”.
Why teenagers love the application so much is an important question. The dream of quick fame seems to be one aspect of fast-paced modern life in which everything is turned into something to be done at the greatest possible speed before moving on to something else. The very fact that TikTok provides a platform for teenagers where they can have fun posting 15-second videos and quell their thirst for success may be one of the reasons the application enjoys such great popularity among them. It has helped these youngsters to form a community of followers that cares to watch their creations and makes them feel like “crowned celebrities”, an ambition which many strive to attain.
TikTok also has a smart design that attracts new users while maintaining its old population of followers. When you first log on to the app, it automatically displays a video and repeats it several times. It also displays all its videos on a single screen, so that users cannot watch any other videos at the same time and are left with nothing else to watch. They then share them, like them, or just move on. TikTok has cute and creative stickers and sound and visual effects that help teenagers to create catchy content, share their videos with friends, and search for sound clips to record their own materials.
These tools have made TikTok the most successful short video application in the world today and one that successfully dominates the market. Some experts even speculate that TikTok could change the way people interact with social media and reshape the notion of celebrity.
PARENTS ARE UNHAPPY
According to the Business of Apps, a US research centre which provides news, data and marketplaces for app businesses, TikTok has hit 80 million downloads in the US since October 2018.
Half of the downloads were by active TikTok users who spend an average of 52 minutes a day logged on to the app, according to Business of Apps. China’s own version of TikTok, dubbed Douyin, also boasts major popularity among its users who spend an average of 30 minutes per day on the app and log on to it four to five times a day, according to Business of Apps.
Statistics from the US site Google Play show that TikTok boasted 68 million downloads worldwide in October 2018 alone, ranking as the third-most downloaded application in the world. According to data provided to the US network CNBC by the US Sensor Tower marketing company, TikTok was downloaded 104 million times on the US-based Apple App Store during the first half of 2018, making it the most downloaded app on the platform during this period.
The huge success of TikTok is attributed to the fact that it targets a new segment of users, young people aged between 13 and 18, but their passion for it has also been a major concern for many parents, worried that it could encourage the creation of inappropriate content in the hope of attracting more likes. In the world of social media, the number of likes, comments, followers and sharing an individual gets is often perceived as one way of gauging social acceptance. Should they receive few likes, some teenagers may resort to various actions to grab more attention, even if that means acting like clowns or making themselves into jokes.
But what worries parents the most is the fact that some young users, eager to create catchy videos, may take risks that pose threats to their own lives. One short video featuring a young woman dancing in the middle of a street while a bus was approaching is one case in point. In July 2019, a young Indian man also reportedly drowned in a lake while filming a video on TikTok in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. Local media reports said the incident had occurred after the victim and his cousin had filmed a video.
Such incidents have provoked heated public debate, and many experts have wondered why TikTok users would sacrifice their lives in attempts to grab more likes and views from people they do not know and will probably never meet in real life.
Ghada Heshmat, a relationship and family psychotherapist and of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) in the US, says that TikTok is an app that targets adolescents. “It was launched in Asia and then spread to Egypt, where many young people are now obsessed with the app’s promises of fame,” Heshmat said.
“TikTok can answer to many adolescents’ desire for attention and for their talents to be recognised. It provides a platform for varied interests through videos that are sometimes inspired by international issues or are grounded in the arts and cultural scene. At the end of the day, you may find millions of TikTok videos showcasing youngsters’ talents in a cool and funny way,” she added.
The video content may include a range of activities including dancing, acting out comedies, singing, drawing, and photography. There are also short video clips that include teenage hobbies like playing sports and travelling. “All these videos provide an unprecedented venue for teenagers to vent their hidden talents and energies,” Heshmat noted. “The app has given them an unprecedented chance to show off their abilities and perhaps attain their dreams of fame and wealth.”
But there is another side to the coin. “The excessive use of anything is always unhealthy and that definitely applies to TikTok,” Heshmat warned. “It’s a double-edged sword. Whereas TikTok can help release adolescents’ pent-up energy, spending too much on it will definitely be addictive and could waste their time and distract them from studying.”
Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian media analyst, agrees. For Abdel-Rahman, TikTok is part of “the recent social-media hype that has been taking the world by storm, providing users with tools that can be used in both positive and negative ways.”
“Social media is no doubt a platform for those who want to express their views freely without having to resort to traditional media outlets, and this can be a good thing,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. The catch, however, lurks in the absence of supervision. “Digital users are left without any guidance on how best to use the social networks,” he explained, adding that “there must be more effort on the part of experts and families alike to find ways to orient the public, combat misuse, and provide guidance on how to use these platforms.”
TikTok is no exception to this rule. “The application has helped ordinary people become stars who may sometimes grab more public attention than traditional celebrities,” Abdel-Rahman said. “Conversely, some stars and artists now tend to watch and even emulate videos created by ordinary people in attempts to know what people like and how to better reach out to their audiences. Media experts, including those working in the press, television and radio, should thus monitor and analyse the content of these short videos in order to gauge public taste. After all, not all TikTok videos are bad or harmful; there are good videos out there that may help us discover hidden talents,” he added.
“The controversy over TikTok is not going to end soon,” Abdel-Rahman said. For him, these applications should be regarded in the context of “waves of fashion that peak and then fall off when other sites and applications appear, grabbing even more users with new facilities and tools.” Such waves, according to Abdel-Rahman, “have led to the absence of what we might call the collective consciousness of the community, such that today every group of people, or every governorate or city, follows its own favourite sites and has its own stars.
“These trends should be studied and tackled without blaming users because this would not work and could even cause a backlash,” he suggested.
Any discussion of the hazards of social media and its potentially negative effects on young people may be useless in the absence of practical solutions.
Social media has become a vital part of our lives, and there is no way we can stop using it or prevent our children from using it. Instead, parents and experts alike should focus on exploring ways on how to protect children against social-media misuse. Tech firms, global research centres, and experts have been studying the issue and have come up with a number of guidelines that the Weekly has compiled.
- Advising teens to think carefully about what they want to post and what they choose to watch on social media. They should be warned not to post or share content that may lead to self-harm or that may pose harm to other users. They should not humiliate or bully other users and should not allow other users to bully or humiliate them.
- Teaching young users that videos should not portray hazardous actions or involve or encourage self-harm or acts of suicide. Children should be educated to report violent videos that may harm users and even take screen shots of such videos as evidence. They should report any video content that may abuse users in any way, be it physical, emotional, financial or legal.
- Teaching young users that food challenges on social media can be unhealthy and sometimes even hazardous, and that such challenges should be totally avoided. Young people should be trained in how to respond to bullying, humiliating comments, and/or online threats made by viewers on their own, or on other users’, video posts.
- Teaching children to tell their parents at once if they face any threat or intimidation online and to also report it to app management. They should be encouraged to report any hate speech or content that condones the use of weapons, bombs, drugs, or other materials brought by terrorist organisations or criminals. They should be trained to take positive action and to help ban such posts by expressing refusal and not sharing them;
- Making young users aware of the dangers of publishing or interacting with any content that incites hatred or bias against a group of people based on race, religion, nationality, culture, age or against people with disabilities. They should not get involved in any game that includes gambling or bets or money-related transactions in order to avoid getting mired in acts of fraud that may be widespread on an app.
- Monitoring children in their use of apps for sexually explicit terms that may not suit them. All app content should be reviewed before children log on. Children should be told to skip videos featuring nudity or sexual gestures; they should be warned not to view or share videos condoning sexual abuse, violence or any other kind of exploitation, including sexual exploitation. Such situations should be reported to app management if they occur.
- Training adolescent users in how to protect intellectual property on the Internet and learning not to copy or steal video content from other users or help spread stolen content that violates intellectual property rights.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.