What is TikTok? A Helpful Guide for Parents of Teens

Updated: November 8, 2019
Have your heard your teen talk about TikTok? Not sure what it is? This is the ultimate guide to TikTok for parents of teens. Learn how TikTok works, why teens love, and real insight from a teen on what she uses it for.
group of teen girls looking at phone at tiktok

Now that you’ve got the hang of Snapchat and Facebook, what about TikTok? Here’s the ultimate guide to TikTok for parents of teens to help get you up to speed on how it works with insight from a real teen on how and why they use the popular app.

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It’s hard to scroll through the most used social media platforms without seeing a TikTok video post. The short, catchy, videos created on the app are wildly popular amongst the teen crowd, with 41% of users between the ages of 16 and 24. This helpful guide for parents is a digestible way to learn more about TikTok’s features and uses to give a better understanding of your teen’s social media saturated world. 

What is TikTok?

tiktok app icon

Similar to the now-defunct app Vine, TikTok was launched in 2016 and is the leading app destination for short-form mobile video content. In August 2018, the creators of TikTok purchased an app called musical.ly, which allowed users to create short-form lip sync videos, and merged the apps. There are approximately 500 million monthly users on the app.

Who can use TikTok?

Anyone ages 13 and older can download the app for free. If your child is under the age of 13 and has registered for an account, the Parents Support Center on the app’s website recommends contacting privacy@tiktok.com to take action. Parents can utilize the parental control settings on iOS or Android to block or limit specific apps from being downloaded from their phone if you are concerned about it being used before the age of 13.

So how can parents ensure that their kids are safely setting boundaries with the app, no matter their age? Blaire Lent, FamilyEducation’s Teen Expert and Owner of The Complete Student, shared: "’Ensuring’ that students are using apps safely is not entirely possible, but it is certainly a healthy goal. Teenagers are in a difficult life phase where they have a great deal of access to adult ideas but no experience to have any wisdom about that information. Our job is to give them space to gain experience, while keeping lines of communication open so that they know where to go for wisdom. Parents don't have to understand how to navigate the apps their teens are using, what parents need to work on is how to navigate their teen.”

She continued her words of wisdom: “A good question to ask yourself is: is my teen overly tired? Does my teen have access to their phone all night? Some of the wisdom parents can share with teens is to talk about moderation. Making a TikTok in math class is rude and a poor use of time that could be better spent. Making a TikTok while on a break, or waiting for the bus, or hanging at their lunch table, is a fun way for teens to work together. Using any app on your phone in the middle of the night is not a good way to make sure that you are prepared for school, but playing on your phone after HW is understandable. Sometimes adults fall victim to the trap of ‘all or never’ thinking. For example, ‘You're always on your phone,’ or ‘you never choose family time over phone time.’”

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What makes TikTok so popular?

So what causes users to spend on average 52 minutes per day on TikTok? Zoe, 16, explains: “TikTok is popular with teenagers because of how short the videos are. They are quick and don’t drag it out too long and keep the viewer’s attention. I think it’s also popular because a lot of the people we are watching are similar in age, so it’s cool to see someone that we can really relate to.”

However, there can be a dark side for some who use the app. Zoe shared: “The only thing I don’t like about it is that it makes me self-conscious. Seeing these people who are my age and to me they are so much prettier than me and more interesting.” This comparison game is something which plays tricks on even adults who witness what their real-life peers and popular influencers are sharing online.

How to use TikTok:

Using the app is relatively straight forward, and largely functions like other social networking apps:

  1. Prepare for your video: Before they hit record, users have the option to choose from a variety of settings and options, including:
    • Speed: Slow motion or sped up
    • Beauty: AR filter which smooths blemishes
    • Filters: Change the color filter of the camera
    • Timer: Set an auto-record countdown for hands-free use
    • Flash: For dark recordings
  2. Record the video
  3. Make final edits and add a caption to the video: Add special effects, music (This is what sets TikTok apart from other apps. Teens can choose from different sounds, songs, and more), captions, and more.
  4. Post the video

Users also have the option to duet with others, and even participate in challenges. To duet, both users must follow each other, and can then create a split screen or swapping back and forth video together. As with other platforms, challenges will occasionally pop-up on TikTok prompting users to try trending topics.

How can parents get involved?

mom and daughter creating tiktok video

Parents can connect with their teens by finding common ground with their own past, Lent explained: “A great way to open the lines of communication about TikTok is to start at the common ground. At the heart of making TikToks are some roots that would be very similar for many parents—TikToks are the "dance routines" that many moms, and some dads, remember making with their friends for hours and hours at that age. The same collaboration, timing, and creativity, all go into these similar actions; the difference is that their version is faster, set to different music, and broadcast on the internet.” 

Getting in on the TikTok fun is even better, and will help you open a line of communication with your child about what type of content they are consuming and creating: “Share with your child about your own history of making up dance routines with friends and ask if they make things like that on TikTok. Then ask if there are any that they would be comfortable showing you.”

“Watch the video, then giggle, and say "that looks like fun!" If you stay nonjudgemental (even if you're cringing on the inside) then the line will be open for them to share more. You can even ask things like "Do some people post TikToks that you think are unsafe? Irresponsible? Embarrassing?" Approaching the conversation this way will allow them to walk through their experience WITH you so that you can offer (with all your experience and wisdom) some advice about how to think about different types of videos, and how to make decisions in their own lives that reflect your wisdom.”

With so many new social media trends comes so many new terms and lingo our teens are using regularly that may have you saying “Huh?” If this sounds familiar, check out our Parent’s Guide to the Latest Teen Slang in 2019