TikTok is a mystery to most adults. It may seem like a site for harmless dances and viral trends that teenagers enjoy – and for the most part, it is.
But as with so many things on the internet, there is a danger of a darker side.
Your students could stumble on to "KinkTok", for example, a hashtag with 4.3 billion views where adults (I hope) discuss the intricacies around BDSM. While it's mainly sex-positive and "in the act" videos are banned, it’s still clearly content that should be left for adults.
This is not just an issue for secondary school staff. Nathalie Richards, director and co-founder of education social enterprise EduKit, warns that age restrictions don’t seem to always work on TikTok.
“We had one teacher reporting that a primary school child was singing ‘I’m horny’ and adding their address [to a video]," she says.
“Schools are torn, because there are huge benefits as well and they’ve seen this during lockdown, with students having fun with their families – dancing, exercising and feeling more connected than they would have done otherwise.”
Safeguarding issues on TikTok
So what are the potentially troubling topics and trends to look out for?
All it takes for sexist or misogynistic content to be viral on TikTok is a catchy song clip. You might find your students singing it or performing the associated dance.
Emily Jensen, a teacher from Brighton, says: “So many girls suffer from insecurities and having a body part referenced in such an antagonistic way will only add to the mental health issues that many young girls face surrounding their identity and their femininity.”
It’s a sad reality that a lot of young people have gone through or will experience trauma at some point in their lives. Talking about it can be therapeutic and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but projecting it across the internet may be something they regret in years to come. And it could even make them more vulnerable to predators.
An example for this can be seen in the Shout Out To My Ex trend, where (mainly) young women express trauma that ex-partners have put them through, as the Little Mix song plays.
Richards warns that “students are susceptible to being groomed” by people on TikTok and it’s a reason to be concerned.
Body image is a huge topic of conversation among young people and there have been strides to increase awareness around what actual people look like.
That being said, there is still a long way to go and social media's effect on young men's and boys' self-image is often underreported.
TikTok has many men offering lifestyle and fitness advice with little to no real qualifications behind them, giving young boys unhealthy body image expectations.
Scammers now have a variety of techniques aimed at taking young people's money, such as trading cryptocurrency. With the explosion of Bitcoin has come a range of other cryptos, most notably Dogecoin, which was started as a joke but is now worth a lot of money.
People are creating new cryptos (which is easy to do) and paying influencers on TikTok to talk about them. When enough people put money in, the owners sell all their tokens, making millions but leaving everyone else with a worthless currency.
These are just a few examples of pitfalls that your students will encounter on TikTok, but new trends pop up all the time, so it's important to keep talking to young people about them, says Jensen.
"It's so important that students have open conversations about the type of content they are interacting with online and how it affects them and others,” she says.
And Richards encourages staff to talk to young people about how to spot concerns among their friends.
She says: “It’s often a friendship group that will hear about something before an adult does,” so it's important to make it clear that they won’t get in trouble by communicating something they’ve heard about to one of their friends or to a trusted adult.
And it's not just about staff, says digital privacy expert Ray Walsh.
“Schools might want to lead the way in opening a dialogue with parents to help them understand the privacy and security features available on TikTok, and to ensure that adequate supervision is in place to figure out whether children are using the app safely,” he says.
“Unsupervised, children may opt to create a TikTok account using a fake date of birth, which will result in them being exposed to content intended for adult audiences.”