Since its launch in 2016, video-sharing app Tik Tok – known as Douyin on the mainland – has sparked a new trend among young people. The app, which allows users to create and share short 15-second lip-syncing and dancing videos, is particularly popular in Hong Kong, Taiwan and on the mainland.
While the terms of service of the app state that users must be at least 13 years old, many of its users are much younger; an investigation by South China Morning Post found that children as young as nine were exposing their personal identities on the app, engaging in dangerous activities to get views, and posting sexually suggestive videos.
A video shot on May 15, for instance, showed a young woman dancing on the road in front of a bus in Causeway Bay. Some videos are reported to have shown people “rooftopping” – climbing or standing on dangerous parts of roofs.
Dominic Yeo, assistant professor of communication studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Young Post that while some teenagers may well “take additional risks” in videos to get noticed and stand out from existing viral video challenges, the majority of teenagers would not go out of their way to do so.
“There is a perceived problem that teenagers spend excessive amounts of time performing these challenges or watching these videos,” said Yeo. However, he believes the motivation behind this trend goes deeper than simply wanting attention.
His own research on young people’s mental health and social media suggests that watching or taking part in social media challenges “are ways to gain a sense of control and meaning in their lives”. Some teenagers, he added, spend time on platforms like Tik Tok to run away from their problems.
Many local young fans of the app told the Post that gaining social acceptance was part of its appeal – but they admitted that this isn’t always guaranteed. Most had received negative comments from peers. “Haters go away” is a line often seen in their bios.
However, many also said that watching videos is fun, and creating them is “relaxing”.
“[The] app facilitates creative opportunities to turn mundane, ordinary, everyday events into [something] that other people will pay attention to,” said Yeo.
He advised parents, teachers, and other professionals working with young people not to dismiss teenagers’ engagement with social media as a waste of time, as this is likely to only widen the gap in communication between them.
After concerns raised about underage children exposing their identities on the platform, Tik Tok has improved its privacy setting. New privacy features include permanent account deletion, private messaging to protect users from messages sent by strangers, and parental control functions so parents can monitor the amount of time young users spend on the app, as well as the content they view.