My teenager gets all their news from TikTok – should I worry?

Here’s everything you need to know about the video sharing social network.

Yolanthe Fawehinmi
Wednesday 14 June 2023 16:50 BST
There is a growing number of young people searching for the news on TikTok (Alamy/PA)
There is a growing number of young people searching for the news on TikTok (Alamy/PA)

Journalists are no longer the gatekeepers. The reality is that many young people are now bypassing the websites and apps of traditional news outlets and seeking information on social media platforms, including TikTok.

It’s the ‘fastest growing social network’, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, and new research has found that 20% of 18-24 year olds use the app solely to find their news. While a massive 44% of that age group use the short-form video hosting service for any and every other purpose.

The younger generation have “little interest in many conventional news offers oriented towards older generations’ habits, interests, values, and instead embrace the more personality-based, participatory, and personalised options offered by social media”, said Reuters Institute director Rasmus Nielsen.

Under 18s are big users too, so for parents whose teens get their news via TikTok, what do you need to understand about the social network and the evolution of digital media literacy?

What is TikTok?

Every so often a new app emerges and redefines the way we use social media. It’s what TikTok went and did in 2016.

Starting as a small niche social media network – founded by Chinese tech giant Zhang Yiming – that attracted lip-synching teens as a short-form video hosting site, it almost knocked Facebook off its perch, and blew up during the coronavirus pandemic to a mega global platform.

Do news organisations share news on it?

Yes, they do. In many ways, traditional news organisations were forced to join TikTok to avoid being left behind, reach new and younger audiences and ensure they are continuing to find creative ways to pivot in a constantly evolving digital space.

“Given the popularity and high engagement level, it’s not surprising that TikTok has become an important news platform for younger audiences, and it makes sense that news organisations are using it,” said Mark Brill, a senior lecturer in Future Media at Birmingham City University. “This, however, is a continuation of an existing trend. For well over a decade social media such as Facebook has been the primary news source for under 25s.”

Anna Lee, founder at the Fr. App, added: “We can see that Gen Z individuals are turning to TikTok for any and all searches. While the funniest sound bites and newest dance trends will always have a home on TikTok, you can also equally expect to find videos explaining an arbitrary housing act.”

How is it shared?

There are various types of videos that can be shared on TikTok. Alongside the short bite-sized videos sharing the latest news, you can share trending sounds, things creators have posted, or videos with friends, family, and your larger community within TikTok or through other social media platforms.

Videos can also be shared directly to other users, as long as the user has allowed for it.

How do algorithms work?

The TikTok algorithm is a recommendation system that determines which videos will appear on your (unique and highly personalised) For You page, which is also known as the homepage.

Brill, who has 25 years of experience applying emerging technologies to engage audiences, said: “Much of the success of TikTok is the way that their algorithm decides which videos to show their users. TikTok’s system is based entirely on their interests and previous viewing.

“This ‘more of what you like’ approach means that users spend more time each month in TikTok than any other platform. In the UK it adds up to over 27 hours per user per month and 23 hours globally. It shows how the platform’s algorithm can be highly addictive.”

Is it OK that TikTok is how young people learn about what’s happening in the world?

Some experts believe it is important for young people to be taught digital literacy at an increasingly earlier age – especially with the prevalence of fake news and artificial intelligence and its ability to forge fake articles and pictures.

“Users of TikTok and all other social media apps must understand how to evaluate every piece of information they come across,” Lee said. “All parents worry about their child viewing harmful content on the internet. However, most leading internet providers provide extensive parental controls, including blocking and filtering unsuitable content.”

Should they be encouraged to look elsewhere?

For Brill, there are both benefits and challenges from using social media as a news source. He also cites the recent Reuters Institute report, which noted that TikTok users tend to look for good-news stories, avoiding the ‘doom scrolling’ found in web-based internet sites, which can have a negative impact on mental health.

“The big question with social media sources, however, is that of veracity. A lack of fact checking and or acknowledgment of authoritative sources makes it difficult to identify fake stories and information. The short-form video format does not bring an in-depth analysis, where opinions are often presented as fact,” he said.

“Perhaps the biggest challenge for TikTok users is with the algorithm itself. By giving more of what they like, it leads to confirmation bias that reinforces existing perceptions.”

While child and behavioural expert Amanda Jenner, would encourage parents to tell their children to look elsewhere.

“I am not a believer in directing children to learn through TikTok at all. Children can easily become addicted to social media and [it] can quickly escalate and [they could] be looking at other things they shouldn’t be watching.

“I genuinely do feel parents need to be worried. I would encourage parents to set an age where it’s acceptable to have TikTok (over the age of 13 preferably) and have a parental control app so you can monitor and control what both they are seeing and the amount of time they spend on [it]. They need to be safeguarded.”

Who knows what social network will be the next big thing but right now it’s difficult to get young people to migrate to another platform.

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