Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2023 Issue
By Deidre Olsen
Over the past few years, TikTok has skyrocketed to international renown, becoming a cultural sensation. Chances are you’ve heard about it from students, if you aren’t already using it yourself. The app, which was launched in China in 2016 and globally in 2018, allows users to create short-form videos and share them with people across the globe. In fact, TikTok has been downloaded more than three billion times, making it one of the most popular social media apps in the world.
As it has increased in popularity, the uses for the app have grown exponentially as well. As with other social media platforms, it has become a marketing tool. But it is also a way for its users to connect with each other, share stories, and learn new skills—and it’s these qualities, along with its unlimited creative potential, that have made TikTok a useful resource in the classroom.
TikTok has quickly proven to be an invaluable educational tool, one that easily resonates with digital natives. Along with any new technology, however, there are both benefits and drawbacks that come with using the platform.
Pros and Cons
One of the biggest issues swirling around TikTok is privacy. The app collects a significant amount of data from its users, including their location, device, and browsing history. In turn, these details are utilized to serve targeted ads to users. There have been a number of concerns about how TikTok handles this data, with allegations that the app shares the information it collects with the Chinese government. These hesitations have led some school districts, such as Hamilton-Wentworth in Ontario, to consider banning it altogether.
While there have been several issues regarding the app, TikTok does present numerous benefits. Since many students are already using it in their free time, incorporating TikTok into the classroom can be a way to meaningfully engage with them on a platform to which they relate. It can function as a jumping-off point to introduce a concept or idea, the same way YouTube videos can be incorporated into pedagogy to capture student interest.
TikTok is also a space for creative expression, and offers unlimited applications in a classroom context—whether being used by teachers to make condensed versions of lessons, or by students to complete an assignment.
Another unique aspect of TikTok is its discoverability. In fact, Gen Z uses the app as a search engine to find authentic content for everything, ranging from beauty trends to restaurant reviews. Many kids are also using it to help with homework.
With all this in mind, what is the verdict on TikTok? And is it worth using despite the privacy concerns? The answer depends on a few factors, each of which deserves careful consideration.
The Issue of Privacy
As a whole, social media platforms are expressly designed to collect data from their users to serve targeted ads. Platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook make money this way. So, if privacy is a significant concern, it might be worth avoiding social media altogether. If the benefits of social media outweigh this concern, however, it could be a necessary compromise.
These efforts may not be enough for some users, especially those who are concerned about security. Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to use TikTok is a personal one. If you and your students decide to do so, you can take further measures to protect everyone’s privacy, such as encouraging students to use strong passwords and limit the amount of personal information they share on the app.
TikTok as a Research Tool
In 2020, TikTok announced the formation of a $50 million USD Creative Learning Fund, which aimed to support creators making educational content. At the time, the platform shared that it had partnered with “over 800 public figures, media publishers, educational institutions, and real-world professional experts.” TikTok also collaborated with celebrities such as Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Tyra Banks on content, using #LearnOnTikTok as its flagship hashtag.
While a desire for academic content has proliferated on TikTok, so too has misinformation. In fact, despite being one of the most popular hashtags on the platform, #LearnOnTikTok has been plagued with false, unverified sources, and at times, conspiracy theories.
As students often encounter fabricated sources when searching for information online, it is important that media literacy is taught in classrooms. Without this indispensable skillset, students may not be adequately prepared to verify and fact-check what they see and hear online.
If students are not set up to consciously consume information, they could be routinely engaging with misinformation or harmful, offensive content. In turn, they might draw on the most toxic, negative aspects of TikTok that can be harmful in the long run.
Jordie Burton teaches visual art, photography, and English to students in Grades 9 through 12 at Maple Ridge Secondary in Barrie, ON. She believes TikTok is a useful research tool for her photography classes, given that it has a plethora of quick, easy tutorials that students can watch. As well, these videos are often created by the peers of her students, who find the videos interesting and informative.
Her students also use the app to help complete their assignments. “I have had students create video posts for reflections,” explains Burton. “Some will [also] use TikTok as a means for editing their videos before exporting them and submitting to class. It has some solid editing features and is accessible to most kids.”
Burton acknowledges that one of the cons of using the app is the potential for students to become easily distracted by it, resulting in wasted class time. Recently, TikTok announced that it plans to add a time limit for users under the age of 18 to reduce time spent on the app. This has been a consistent criticism of social media as a whole, that platforms divert attention away from learning materials.
And when it comes to privacy concerns, Burton says that they are the same with most social media apps. She emphasizes that students need to be aware their profiles can be public if they choose to share them. A more pressing issue, she adds, is the direct contact and sharing of content between students and teachers, which is often treated as a gray zone, depending on the board and the teacher. With this in mind, it is important for educators to establish ethical boundaries with respect to students, the classroom, and social media.
Regarding the much-discussed and contentious topic of district-wide TikTok bans, Burton believes this is unnecessary. “In my opinion, it is far better to have access to the tools and media that exist and learn to use them appropriately with guidance,” she says.
A Conversation Starter
To ensure TikTok is used appropriately, teaching kids about the dangers and risks associated with it is imperative. Along with opening the door to discussions of media literacy, the current TikTok privacy debate can also lead to classroom conversations around cybersecurity, online safety, and the importance of good digital hygiene.
With the right amount of supervision, TikTok can be one educational tool that addresses different modes of learning, engages digital natives, and provides a space for creative expression, connection, and discovery. It is worthwhile for educators to be mindful of the risks associated with TikTok and to keep these concerns in mind when considering bringing it into the classroom. With checks and balances, however, the app can indeed be utilized effectively.
Deidre Olsen is a Canadian, award-nominated writer based in Berlin.