Learning in Digital Worlds

The TikTok ban: what might be lost?

Amidts growing concerns surrounding the safety of TikTok, calls for its ban have emerged not only the U.S., but also in the Netherlands. The primary fear is that TikTok may share the data it collects from users worldwide, including U.S. and European citizens, with the Chinese governement, potentially enabling spying activities. Consequently, these concerns have already led to bans on the usage of TikTok on work phones issued to European and Dutch civil servants. In this blogpost I will argue that though it is crucial to discuss the safety of users on social media platforms, it is also important to reflect on the potential consequences of a TikTok ban.

Through my research, I have observed how young people employ TikTok as a means to share knowledge and skills related to their personal interests, in ways they believe are lacking within the traditional educational system. In interviews conducted for my research, sustainability creators on TikTok for instance expressed that the platform empowers them to take action on climate concerns, whereas they experience school as not sufficiently providing them such opportunities. Furthermore, viewers and creators of history TikTok videos expressed how they gained insight into the national prejudices present in their history curricula by connecting with peers from across the globe who share their passion for history. Despite TikTok’s data collection and exploitation, I have seen how the platform provides youth with a medium to learn, connect, and actively engage in societal causes that matter to them.

Additionally, it seems that it is for youth easier to have their voice heard on TikTok than on other platforms. Compared to platforms like YouTube and Twitch, TikTok appears to lower the barrier for young users to create content. The short-format video might play a role in this regard, as platforms like Twitch and YouTube typically expect of users to produce lengthier content. Additionally, TikTok’s content recommendation algorithm contributes to the perception that anyone can gain an audience on the platform. Unlike YouTube and Twitch, where users need to actively seek out specific channels or content, on TikTok, one simply opens the app and swipes through an endless stream of content curated by TikTok’s “For You” page. This fosters an environment where it seems like any video, created by anyone, can potentially go viral on TikTok. While concerns exist about the implications of algorithmic content curation and the limitations it places on what youth see (or don’t see), it also presents opportunities for them to connect with like-minded individuals, learn, and build communities based on shared interests. Consequently, banning TikTok raises questions about what young people might lose in terms of these opportunities.

The TikTok community pushes back against a ban. From politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

to TikTok creators such as Tofology/Abbie Richards:

to more humourous accounts that ridicule the TikTok hearing in the U.S. by showing segments in which politicians asks questions that are perceived to indicate the lack of knowledge about how TikTok, and the internet in general, works.

There is also a recurring discourse surrounding TikTok that portrays it as a frivolous and superficial app primarily associated with dancing girls and boys. In my research, I have observed the diverse ways in which youth utilise TikTok, while participants from interviews shared that outsiders often perceive it as frivolous. Though some content on the platform may be light-hearted and entertaining, it should not overshadow the educational, creative, and community-building aspects that TikTok also offers. Sometimes both types of content even overlap. By dismissing TikTok as trivial, there is a risk of overlooking the potential benefits that can be derived from the platform. Moreover, this perception of TikTok as trivial may contribute to the notion that banning the app would result in no significant loss.

Overall, while the safety of user data is paramount, it is also important to consider the educational, empowering, and community-building aspects that TikTok offers to youth. It could be meaningful to think beyond the simplistic portrayal of TikTok as trivial and acknowledge the broader impact it has on youth culture and society. By understanding the diverse ways in which young people engage with the platform, we can have a more nuanced conversation about its implications and consider the potential loss that would arise from a ban. Consequently, I wonder in whose interest is a ban? What is lost when TikTok is banned? What voices will disappear? What is gained from banning the app?  What do you think?