Dangerous distraction or the key to classroom creativity?


The popularity and success of TikTok lie in its simplicity. A video-sharing social networking platform that allows users to post videos no longer than 60 seconds (following on from its predecessors, Musical.ly and Vine), TikTok is a natural home for comedy skits, lip syncs, dances, and various hashtag-accompanied challenges. It could almost be described as a disruptive and democratised. 


Since launching in March 2018, the app has catapulted into one of the most influential mediums of our times. Such is the cultural impact of the platform, that the most popular TikTokers can make up to $1 million (£700,000) per post via paid ads or through collaboration with external brands. 

The impact of TikTok on young people


Unsurprisingly, the urge to become TikTok famous is an irresistible one for many young people. With one video, a user can become an overnight viral sensation, gain thousands of new followers, and potentially get a head start on their career. In the age of the influencer, the pull of TikTok shows no signs of slowing down. 


Given that TikTok’s user base is dominated by Generation Z, this has direct implications for education. While many schools have a blanket ban on the use of mobile phones in the classroom, 90% of British children have their own smartphone device by the age of 11. Moreover, of the 500 million active TikTok users across the globe, 90% visit the app more than once a day. Users spend, on average, 52 minutes per day on the platform, and open the app eight times a day. Engagement with TikTok is extremely high — and educators argue this is to the detriment of schoolwork. 

Education through innovation?


Every teacher and parent are aware of the problems associated with the use of phones in schools. Aside from being an obvious distraction, smartphones have exacerbated issues that have long plagued school settings, such as cyberbullying and cheating. Social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are particularly complicit in contributing to these problems. 


However, TikTok’s combination of the fun and the educational is winning some people over. As an open platform to create, TikTok teaches both children and adults new skills. Aside from the video-editing skills that arise from creating videos, users can learn a raft of life skills from the app’s educational videos — from knitting to changing a bike tyre. History teachers, in particular, will no doubt be pleasantly surprised by the popularity of a meme in which users creatively cover historical events — helping to educate users about the past in an engaging, easy-to-digest format. 


The educational potential of the app is already being explored. In the US, one teacher is trialling a supervised after-school “TikTok Club”, while another encourages her physics students to create TikToks for homework assignments. While both teachers ban smartphones in the classroom, the onus is on getting students to leverage the app’s educational potential as an extra-curricular supplement to their schooling.

In the UK, several video platforms are already common in classrooms up and down the country. Providing that addiction, safety and privacy concerns are met, TikTok may yet provide a viable alternative to other video-based teaching tools.

The inevitable drawbacks


Like every app, however, TikTok has a dark side. In one tragic incident, a 19-year-old Brazilian user live-streamed his suicide on the app. TikTok’s immediate response? Not to phone the police or alert his family, but to put together a PR strategy to avoid tarnishing the company’s image.


As a teacher or parent, it’s hard not to be cynical. Within five minutes of scrolling through videos, a casual user can stumble across instances of self-harm, violence or sexually explicit content (alarmingly, often featuring school-age children). In particular, TikTok has been criticised for its inability to tackle the growing problem of online predators — even though its community guidelines forbid users from using “public posts or private messages to harass underage users.” As reported by the BBC, “while the majority of sexual comments were removed within 24 hours of being reported, TikTok still failed to remove a number of messages that were clearly inappropriate for children.”

Conclusion: the risks of TikTok outweigh benefits 


While there is widespread resistance to the use of the app within a school setting, TikTok is unlikely to be the flash in the pan it seemed only a year ago. As the app’s audience expands, so too will the app’s offerings — as the launch of EduTok in India signifies. However, mounting evidence suggests that smartphones hinder learning. Not only can they have a negative impact on a pupil’s academic performance, but their use in the classroom can also make a teacher’s life more difficult. 


The addictive nature of TikTok, for all its benefits, has the potential to intensify these problems. And when we consider the very real ethical concerns tied to the app, it’s unlikely that schools will jump on the TikTok train en masse. In the UK, many schools ban mobile phones in the classroom, and the consensus among parents and teaching staff is that the ban has a positive effect on pupil behaviour, particularly in terms of concentration and sociability. 

In one Llandudno secondary school, a ban on mobile phones saw GCSE grades increase by 10% within the first year of its implementation. Before TikTok is even considered as an educational tool, school boards would have to reconsider their stance on mobile phones — something that looks increasingly unlikely. 


Ultimately, TikTok’s reputation is all a matter of perspective. For the GCSE student who uses the app to supplement their revision, it’s a source of educational inspiration. But unless TikTok’s owners proactively clamp down on the app’s worst recesses, its educational value could remain permanently tarnished.