Tiktok: 1.5Bn users, darling of social media but fraught with controversy.

TikTok and digital literacies

Peter Thomas
Mar 5, 2020 · 6 min read

Dr Peter Thomas, director of HaileyburyX, writing with Lauren Sayer, former director of Digital Learning at Haileybury and now Executive Director, Digital Learning, Research and Innovation at Melbourne Girls Grammar

With over 1B users, TikTok has emerged as one of the darlings of the social media scene.

Starting life as Musical.ly, which was acquired for a reported $1Bn by Chinese company Bytedance, its addictive mix of 60-second videos, Snapchat-like filters, cute auto-curated #ForYouPage feature, a virtual currency, memes, trending hashtags and earworm songs has proved irresistible to the predominantly under 30 audience in 154 countries worldwide (and in 75 different languages) who spend almost an hour a day on TikTok.

It sounds like fun, and it is, but in Australia — and everywhere — it’s causing some ripples.

In Australia, The Federal Government’s chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee has labelled Tiktok a security threat that has the potential to leak personal data. As reported by the Australian ABC, the Australian military has (along with the US military) banned the app out of concern that AI and facial recognition might compromise the safety of personnel. Reddit’s co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman said TokTok was “fundamentally parasitic, that it’s always listening, the fingerprinting technology they use is truly terrifying.”

And, as there are a large proportion of teens who make content for TikTok (over 60% of users are video creators), it has stirred up concern amongst parents, who are concerned about the potential for predatory behaviour. Australia’s Nine News segment “A TikTok family warning” labelled it “a family danger”; and a Fast Company piece looked at the ‘Skull-breaker challenge’ in which a child is tripped and gets injured on video and which has sparked copycat videos. The CBS News segment on this story labelled it “assault and cyberbullying.”

All technology that connects people has the potential for hazard. TikTok is the latest. Whether it’s the Twitter echo chamber that can amplify misinformation, YouTube videos that escape moderation filters, human or algorithmic, or fake Facebook profiles, technology can be a magnet for the bad, the threatening and the dangerous.

But technology can also be — as we have seen countless times — a positive force, for example, Wikipedia with its 274B annual page views, 52 million articles in more than 300 languages and highly developed ecosystem of contributors and editors. The challenge is to step back and take a rational, balanced and nuanced approach.

In the case of TikTok — especially when we are entering a new phase of technology in learning partly driven by the prospect of learning happening online more of the time — could it be a channel, despite the potential hazards, that we can use for education?

As the MIT Review reported last week, the World Health Organisation is now on TikTok, teaching teens about the coronavirus in an attempt to combat the rampant misinformation around the spread of the virus.

As is the World Economic Forum, who are also featuring videos about the spread of the virus, along with videos about sustainability, economic development and innovation. They are using Toktok to get verified, accurate and reliable information into the hands of young people on a platform that they use daily.

And this is necessary. As The Guardian reported, “people are more likely to share bad advice on social media than good advice from trusted sources such as the NHS, Public Health England or the World Health Organization.”

World Economic Forum on Tiktok

So can Tiktok, with all the potential hazards, be an educational tool?

The Guardian reported in late 2019 on teens doing TikTok history re-enactments — anything from videos about the German empire in 1914 from TikTok user @dontkickphilip, to the American role in the creation of the League of Nations from @slavicceasar.

When a history teacher and UK school principal, interviewed by the Guardian, was asked how she’d feel if she found out this was what her students were getting up to she said: “I would be absolutely ecstatic” and that even if the videos weren’t entirely historically accurate, they work as a useful historical tool.

TikTok user slavicceasar on the League of Nations. Reposted from Twitter.

TikTok themselves, in line with their mission to “recognise, uplift and invest in those on our platform who are driving culture and creativity” hosted the first TikTok #MakeBlackHistory Summit for Black Creators focusing on the importance of cultural content creation.

TikTok’s #MakeBlackHistory Summit.

One of the compelling features about TikTok is its ease of use. The swipe-down/swipe-left/swipe-up interaction that is seamlessly simple; the video creation tools that need nothing more than a smartphone and some basic abilities that lower the barriers to being a creator; and the crossover social network/searchable hashtag/trending meme/personalised algorithmic curation paradigm makes it compelling enough to get lost down a rabbit hole of swiping that can lead to unexpected places.

But on the whole, educators have been slow to latch onto platforms like TikTok as a replacement for, or complement to, the ways that they deliver content to learners.

There are lots of reasons for this, and not just the hazards that TikTok might pose for students to be exposed to inappropriate, threatening or unverified and inaccurate content, or the potential for data leakage and misuse.

One of them is, as we are exploring in our work as part of HaileyburyX, is that on the whole teachers, parents and students have room for improvement in their digital literacies.

This is not to say people aren’t competent power users of the things that they use every day or that they don’t understand how, on the whole, social media works.

It’s to point out that when a new thing arrives — back in the day Twitter and Facebook, now TikTok, Discord, WeChat or a host of other apps — people, on the whole, don’t know what to make of it. Is TikTok a social network, messaging platform, content creation tool or Instagram-like showcase and commerce platform? Maybe it’s all of them, depending on what you are interested in. With no reliable metrics to use — is this the same as Facebook and its widely-reported problems of data misuse or a Twitter-like app that has lots of verified official accounts and where you can go for news — it's often hard to make sensible decisions.

That’s one of the reasons why we are developing a new course in digital literacies. The course is for students, teachers and parents who will each have pathways through the content.

For students it will look at issues including the management of their digital footprints and what happens to their data; for parents, it will help to accurately place the next big thing their teen is using in the universe of platforms and apps so that they can talk about it in an informed way and decide to set sensible boundaries; for teachers, it is about unpacking the potential uses, and reasons not to use, new apps that their students are probably using anyway the moment they head out of class.

HaileyburyX course on Digital Literacies for students, parents and teachers.

This is not to endorse or recommend TikTok or any other app or platform. But we do think the course is a useful intervention in helping our community thrive when technology assumes, as it inevitably will, a much more significant role in what we learn and how we learn it.

You can read more about HaileyburyX at https://haileyburyx.org.au where you can find our roadmap of multidisciplinary courses for students, teachers and parents.

Stories about education from HaileyburyX.