Tik Tok: An Unsettling Trend

Kids love Tik Tok. Preteens, teens and young adults are huge fans and seem to be the ones who use it the most. Oprah Magazine described the app in November 2019 as this:
“TikTok is a Chinese-owned social video-sharing app. Users can shoot, edit, and share 15-second videos jazzed up with filters, music, animation, special effects, and more. Like its fellow social media apps, users can also follow, like, and comment on everything they see. TikTok can be used on iOS and Android operating systems. To put it plain and simple, TikTok is here to make social media fun again.”

So, Tik Tok is a hugely popular video making app that is meant to be fun, entertaining and interactive. But, like so many digital trends, something unexpected has started to emerge from teen users, this time mostly from females.

In November of 2019, the TODAY show reported on what was being seen on Tik Tok:”Videos, where girls dance to an unusual soundtrack: Toxic voicemails left by abusive boyfriends or exes. The juxtaposition of dancing and degrading language might seem odd, but the videos show how pervasive emotional and verbal abuse can be in teen dating.”

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert, told TODAY Parents:“Abuse doesn’t only happen to children who had no good role model of love. One third of teens will experience abuse of some kind.”

“Many applaud the girls for exposing their abusive partners by literally airing the awful messages. Gilboa says publicly sharing stories about partner abuse helps victims find supporters and reinforces their feelings that something was wrong about the behaviors.”

“It validates what they are experiencing. They see, ‘Hey this is not OK,’” she explained. “When they open themselves up looking for validation, peer support occurs, and it’s good for them.”

“But when people leave nasty comments or blame the victims for ruining their relationships, it can be damaging.”

“What they get is the opposite of validation,” she said. “It can be dangerous.”

“But Gilboa says the videos serve as an example to others about what abusive language sounds like. This could perhaps help other teens realize they’re in a bad relationship and need to get out. The controlling, disrespectful language sticks out in the messages and this is a clear warning sign that something’s amiss in a relationship.

While Gilboa doesn’t think that public humiliation will change the abusive teens behaviors, she thinks that the videos can serve as good examples for others.

“It isn’t going to stop someone who feels that ownership is the only way to love,” she said. “It is really valuable for young people to see their peers saying love doesn’t mean ownership.”

Which is all true and deeply sad. Love doesn’t mean ownership and it is heartbreaking to think of teens in abusive relationships. But, let’s look at this as if it were your own child. What if you saw your daughter dancing to a voicemail from a partner saying cruel and demeaning things to her? What if you watched a video of a girl you barely know or know very well, dancing to your son’s voice saying deeply disturbing things? What if this video was broadcast and seen by others? Seen by younger siblings or a coach? Seen by parents of their classmates? Seen by your coworkers?

Project B3 is not condemning or judging these teens for choosing to express themselves in a way that feels meaningful and cathartic to them. But, we need to guide our children in the right direction when it comes to what they choose to share and not share online, especially when something becomes a “trend.” Is it ok to share someone else’s voicemail, even if the words they chose are ugly and wrong? Are you sure you want to portray yourself as a victim of abuse online, at such a young age when you have your whole life to define who and what you will be? We know it’s just a 15 second video, but all the posts, photos, videos, memes and messages we share over our lives add up to one image of who you are. Let’s make sure our kids are sharing their best selves online and not taking anyone down in the process.

If you or someone you know is or has been in an abusive relationship you can visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for additional resources and support.