Earlier this school year, Andrew Kozlowksy noticed one of his students out in the hallway, dancing. What was she up to?
Making a TikTok, the student told him.
After serving as an impromptu background dancer in her video, Kozlowsky, a teacher at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Md., did some research on the platform. Now, he’s started using it in his social studies class. He gave his students the option of making TikTok videos to demonstrate their understanding of the Missouri compromise of 1820, a key event in the lead-up to the American Civil War.
“That can be kind of a dry issue,” Kozlowsky admitted. But TikTok helped bring it to life. “It’s a chance for them to be creative. It’s a fun way for students to show what they know.”
Kozlowsky is an early adopter to bringing the latest social media craze into the classroom. TikTok is a short-form video application, similar to the now-defunct Vine video platform.
The TikTok video-sharing platform is becoming increasingly popular with tweens and teens, and some teachers have started using it in their classrooms. What do educators need to know?
1. TikTok can be an engaging way to liven up a lesson. It’s a possible alternative to other video platforms, one California educator said.
2. TikTok has the potential to become a bullying platform, in part because users can comment on each other’s videos, and because some users post other people’s videos on YouTube for the express purpose of making fun of them.
3. Some privacy advocates have concerns about students sharing their data on any social media platform because it’s unclear what companies do with it.
4. Like other social media platforms, TikTok has a dark side. Some videos are highly sexually explicit, or feature self-harm.
Source: Common Sense Media, Education Week
The platform appeals to a wide-variety of ages. But, as many educators can tell you, it’s a hit with tweens and teens.
TikTok is “sort of its own language and it’s the language that teenagers speak,” said Jennifer Berg Gaither, the school librarian at Baltimore City College, a public magnet high school in the city. “It’s incredibly popular with them.”
Like Kozlowsky, she’s enthusiastic about TikTok’s potential as a teaching and engagement tool.
But, even as experts encourage the trend, they warn that the platform has the potential to become a big classroom distraction. And, like Snapchat and Instagram, it could become yet another forum for bullying. Add to that ubiquitous student data privacy considerations, giving educators good reason to proceed cautiously with the use of this relatively new social media platform.
Still, teachers see the possibilities of TikTok.
Earlier this school year, Kathryn Byars, a social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, Calif., gave her students the option of making TikToks to compare and contrast different historical trade routes, and to share inventions from the Industrial Revolution. She sees it as an alternative to other video platforms.
She thinks with the right structure, including limited time on the platform and specific assignments, it can be a way for students to channel something they already love into a learning tool. “Instead of fighting it, I’m finding ways to engage with it in my classroom.”
Other teachers have created their own TikToks, including Berg Gaither, who is the extended essay coordinator for the school’s International Baccalaureate program. She helps kids find materials for a 4,000 word research paper requirement, the kind of assignment usually given to college students. She’s used the platform to try to make that daunting process seem more manageable for students, creating, for instance, a TikTok that explains how to do academic citations.
Her colleague, Edwin Perez, a Spanish teacher at Baltimore City College, said he first gave students the option of using TikTok to show what they learned during a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and to point out examples of French and Spanish language use in signage around the city. He’s now planning to use the platform to allow his students to create short, scripted videos in Spanish.
TikTok comes with its fair share of potential problems. Educators should be mindful that it could become a bullying tool, said Christine Elgersma, a senior editor for parent education at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that studies the impact of technology on children and young people.
On TikTok, you can “duet” with another person, meaning react to another person’s TikTok, Elgersma said. That will display as something like a split screen, she explained. And it can be used for bullying purposes. “People will make fun of someone else’s video,” she said. Users can turn off those features before someone takes advantage of them. Elgersma said, which might cut down on the bullying temptation.
What’s more, there are also whole compilations of TikTok “cringe” videos on YouTube that could be posted without the original author’s consent, she said. “You might not know that your TikTok has been shared widely and perhaps people are laughing at you, or making fun of you on other platforms. Obviously, in middle or high school, that can become a source of drama.” Students could get targeted and their TikTok accounts could get spammed with kids making fun of them, she suggested.
Teachers aren’t immune from potential ridicule, either. Elgersma has seen some educators unknowingly play bit parts in student TikTok videos. “I have seen teachers being, I think, unwittingly filmed and become a part of a TikTok video,” she said.
And like other social media, TikTok has the potential to be distracting. “Kids are definitely using this app at school,” she said.
But Elizabeth Thomas, Kozlowsky’s principal, said that, so far, TikTok hasn’t become a classroom management headache.
“I think there are other social media platforms that have been extremely difficult to manage,” Thomas said. “But I would not say TikTok has gotten there.”
And then there are serious student data privacy considerations.
“Schools should avoid TikTok like the plague,” said Brad Shear, a parent and lawyer specializing in privacy and security, who sometimes consults with school districts. Shear doesn’t think that teachers should compel their students to sign up for any social media accounts, including TikTok, in part because it’s unclear what the companies who run these platforms ultimately do with the personal data they collect.
And he’s concerned that a funny—but slightly inappropriate—video could come back to haunt a student in the college admissions process, or with future employers. Shear is also especially worried about TikTok, as opposed to other social media platforms, because it is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. Former TikTok employees have accused the Chinese government of censoring TikTok posts, including political content, the Washington Post has reported. And it’s not clear if the Chinese government will ultimately get access to the personal data of TikTok users, including students, Shear said.
“I find it very troubling when our schools are encouraging our kids to use TikTok,” he said. “At the end of the day, these companies cannot be trusted” with student data, particularly with the looming prospect of interference by the Chinese government.
Byars said she’s aware of those concerns and has cautioned her students that it’s unclear what social media companies will do with their data. She and Kozlowsky said they would never require a student to use TikTok to complete an assignment—it’s always going to be one of several options for showing their work.
Perez has a similar strategy. And he lets students who don’t want to sign up for an app—or don’t have a cellphone—work with a classmate who has an account.
‘Truly Scary Things’
Another thing that bothers Elgersma: Younger children on TikTok will sometimes “try to emulate older kids and teens.” They might lip-sync to songs with mature or inappropriate lyrics, dance in provocative ways, or appear scantily clad.
Teachers, particularly elementary and middle school teachers, might want to consider addressing those behaviors and TikTok as part of digital citizenship lessons, she said. Teachers should present students with positive role models on the app and give them ideas about “how you can have fun with an app like TikTok without having to make a video that’s like, a girl in a bikini dancing to an R. Kelly song. There are ways to use it that are age-appropriate.”
Berg Gaither realized how tough that can be when she made a TikTok video as a bonding experience with her students. They wanted to try out their own version of one of the songs and dances that she said “millions” of people had already posted on the platform. It wasn’t easy, though, to find one with school-appropriate lyrics.
“The struggle is real trying to find a P.G. song that didn’t have the n-word or the f-word,” Berg Gaither said. “It was very, very hard.” And, just like any other social media app that’s being used by kids, teens, and older adults, teachers should be aware that, with TikTok, “there are risks associated, especially [for] vulnerable kids,” Elgersma said. Some adults will look at the videos, comment on students’ bodies, or offer them money or other incentives to meet in person. Students, she said, need to be taught how to deflect that kind of attention.
TikTok, too, has its dark corners, including adults-only hashtags, which might flag highly sexualized content, or self-harm videos.
“There are some truly negative things and some truly scary things, and some truly creepy people on these platforms too,” Elgersma said. “If you’re going to use it in class, you also have to teach kids how to use it safely outside of class,” including how to make an account private.
Byars talks to her students about those issues. And she encourages them not to post the TikToks they do for her class, and instead put the videos on another platform to be graded so that their “images and faces” aren’t going out into the social media sphere.
But she acknowledged that many students will still have public TikTok accounts, despite her cautions.
“I don’t know if the best way to challenge that in the classroom is to say ‘never use these things.’ Kids are going to use them anyway,” she said. “So how do we start engaging in the conversations about the dangers of it if we’re not willing to tell them, ‘there are some positives to this thing that you’re using and that you’re spending all this time on as well?’”
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as TikTok: Powerful Teaching Tool or Classroom Problem?