Social Media

Understanding Student Fascination With TikTok
By BRIAN G. RICCA/School Administrator, June 2020

TO TIKTOK OR not to TikTok is the wrong question. The reality is, TikTok is where our students are in 2020, now more than ever because most of them are not attending their physical schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

If this is where our students are, why are we not meeting them there?

Several years ago, Twitter was considered to be not much more than a place where you could find out the latest dish on the Kardashians. Yet at the most recent AASA national conference in San Diego, there was an entire social media lounge, several organized Twitter chats and a focus group on the final day about the professionally encompassing presence of Twitter among superintendents.

Twitter is way more than a place to access the latest gossip. It’s a place where individuals can connect based on the merit of the ideas, and it’s the best professional development I’ve ever participated in while wearing my pajamas.

A Public Service

So what is TikTok? From its website: “TikTok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.” It is where our students are recording and sharing videos, capturing the moments in their lives they want to memorialize forever (even if they don’t yet know it) and share for all to see. It’s how they are making their mark on the world. But they’re not the only ones who are using TikTok.

Consider Dr. Danielle Jones, a gynecologist in College Station, Texas. According to a recent account in The New York Times, Jones is using TikTok because she hopes to “counter medical misinformation to a surging audience.” Think of it as a viral public service announcement.

Truth Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization committed to eliminating tobacco use, used a TikTok challenge to urge teens to quit vaping. The #ThisisQuitting TikTok challenge came on the heels of a national campaign launched in January that led to more than 1.8 billion views on TikTok and more than 365,000 TikTok user-created videos intended to help young people nationwide quit vaping.

I think of this as a no brainer, but I know as the leader of a 600-student school district that students in 2020 are still trying to vape, using items that look like a USB storage drive. I can use all the help I can get.

Digital Missteps

Are there shortcomings to TikTok? As with any social media, of course there are. I have seen plenty of examples of students (and adults) running amok on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. As appealing new apps emerge, we see where our students gravitate, and we must go with them. We must expand their understanding of digital citizenship and digital footprints and the dangers that digital missteps could mean for their future.

But we can’t dwell here on the downsides. We want our students to use their superpowers of social media for good. Now is a time when TikTok can make connections for students and teachers, due to social distancing and closed school buildings. Now is a time to embrace creativity and use TikTok videos for multiple means of expression, so our students can show us how they’re learning.

If we only consider the downsides to social media, would Twitter be as professionally prevalent as it currently is? Would Facebook even have gotten off the ground? Would Snapchat even be a “thing”?

I believe that the staying power of different social media platforms is crowd-sourced — the ones that survive are the ones used by the masses. Do you remember Friendster, MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger? Of course you do, but they’re no longer relevant.

TikTok is relevant right now, so now is the time to see what all the fuss is about.

Consider this: Instead of the five-paragraph essay, how about a 2½-minute video? Now is the time to allow students to use TikTok to engage with their world, not run from it.

Jennifer Abrams, an education consultant who works to improve the voice of leaders, talks about getting into “necessary trouble” to do our work authentically. This is the necessary trouble of leadership in 2020 and beyond. If our students are using an app to interact with their world, we need to know about it, and we need to be there. If we don’t, their world will literally pass us by while our heads are in the sand.
BRIAN RICCA is superintendent of the St. Johnsbury School District in St. Johnsbury, Vt. Twitter: @BGRiccaVT