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Danger in the TikTok Era

Dancing, lip syncing, cracking jokes, and constantly vying for a spot on the coveted For You Page are all staples of the new social media craze, TikTok. This app, converted from Musical.ly in 2018, has taken over teen culture with its light-hearted, 15-second to one-minute videos. Recently though, the nature of this app has taken a turn; users are now being called into question for their insensitive posts regarding world crises. 

There is no doubt that the TikTok fever has infiltrated the Packer community; it is not uncommon to see groups of friends filming dance videos in the Atrium or laughing at a particularly funny clip in their section.

 A few of Packer’s own have even gone viral on the app, receiving over a million views. Willa Gilbert-Goldstein (‘20) became popular after she posted a video showcasing the spots at Packer where the hit TV show Gossip Girl was filmed. Sydney DeRiggs (‘23) went viral with her friend Violet Lane for their aesthetic fashion videos. 

It seems that users are now focusing more on current political events and less on their personal lives, though. Issues such as the conflict with Iran, the potential U.S. military draft, and the spreading coronavirus are being used by people on the app for jokes and popularity. Whether these videos are comedic or insensitive is a point of real contention on the platform.

Henry Petrini (‘21)—who regularly goes on TikTok and often has videos with over 300 views—believes that these jokes reveal an underlying entitlement of the American youth. 

“The ability to make jokes about all this is coming from a sense of privilege U.S. kids can have because they are removed from these issues. We wouldn’t be making those jokes if we lived in Iran or the provinces affected by the coronavirus,” he said. 

A few men currently enlisted in the U.S. military and stationed in Iran have also responded negatively to the TikToks about the draft. According to them, the videos both delegitimize the severity of being drafted and are disrespectful to those with family abroad. 

One soldier said, “I know it’s fun to make these jokes but you have to understand, it’s not funny over here.” 

Delia Barnett (’20) believes TikTok users must recognize “that these issues aren’t jokes for everyone. There are people in the United States who are going to be disproportionately affected by what happens next because the draft is not a just system. And we know those people aren’t the ones joking online about it.”

Although these videos seem to be receiving a lot of negative feedback both from members of our community and on the platform, many others view these videos as a funny, inconsequential coping mechanism; people may be posting them with the hopes that making jokes about these issues can mitigate some of the very real stress around them. 

“Everyone has their own way of dealing with extreme fear and I’m a proponent of doing that however you can and need,” Delia asserted. 

It should be noted that only a small portion of the videos on TikTok regarding these issues are actively targeting groups of people; most are trivial quips about how our generation would still do the renegade dance in Iran or personifying the coronavirus as an annoying person at their school. It’s when these videos toe the line of being outwardly racist, islamophobic, and xenophobic that they cause a stir. 

Even still, there is an issue with calling for a total cessation of the videos: a limitation of free speech. Should the right to express oneself freely be more important than making the online space feel safe, secure, and harassment-free for users of all backgrounds?

David Lilien (‘23), while understanding the severe ramifications of these videos, thinks no. David created a documentary about TikTok and its appeal for his ninth grade Digital Video class (see full documentary on The Prism website). 

“TikTok is a privately owned app,” he said, “so they obviously have the right to censor the more racist or offensive videos. But if they started restricting content then where would they draw the line?”

David worries that if TikTok were to crack down on videos about these topics, the app would lose the very thing that makes it so successful and lucrative.

“TikTok is an amazingly creative outlet for our generation. Literally millions and millions of kids are expressing their views in this space and I don’t think that should be stopped.”

So when does a video cross the moral boundary between being funny and disrespectful to those in real danger? Is it the responsibility of the app to limit free speech in order to stop online harassment? Is this how our generation wants to publicly respond to such catastrophic events?

Lily Crowell is currently a junior at The Packer Collegiate Institute and editor of the Arts and Entertainment section for the Prism this year. This is her second year on the Prism and she is excited to continue to report on student issues and school events! In her spare time, Lily is a dancer, choreographer, and independent writer. Lily can be reached at licrowell@packer.edu.

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