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Remember February? Just a few short months ago, we were mystified and miffed by our kids’ TikTok app obsession: the giggles and glazed stares into their phones; the dance moves that seemed constant and catching; the impulse to video themselves doing nothing; and if you were unlucky, stupid pranks that ended with elevation and ice packs. 

“I couldn’t stand it!”

This is how Newark-based Kirah Phillips felt about TikTok before COVID-19 upended our lives. “I felt like it was invading my privacy. My daughter would make these random videos and I would just be walking by in my pajamas,” she laughs, discussing her 10-year-old’s app obsession. Now, Phillips is hooked too (“We are big on dance challenges!”), and she’s not alone. The desire to connect, the boredom of isolation, and the need to simply move have turned the tween and teen-centric social media platform into a family affair. Parents seem to be equally in it to win it (likes, that is) with their kids. 

“My love for it has changed because this is how we bond. As a single mom of five it helps make time pass since we’ve been under quarantine,” says Phillips. “It’s also great cardio for me since I am trying to get in shape!” 

A Little Background, Please
An app created by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok lets users purportedly age 13 and up (but not really) create and share short videos no more than a minute long, but typically closer to 15 seconds. In 2017, ByteDance acquired and merged the once-popular app Music.ly with TikTok, and its emphasis on dancing, lip-synching, and entertaining is evident. It also acquired its sins, forking over $5.7 million to settle allegations that Music.ly illegally collected personal data on minors under the age of 13.

What makes TikTok unique is the easy, effortless way users engage with other users to replicate dances, back-and-forth with friends, create comedy and commentary, and easily jump in to post something (anything) and find their temporary tribe. Even as a passive scroller, TikTok’s intuitive algorithms make quick work of assessing one’s interests be they cat tricks or makeup tutorials or checking in on #hypehouse—they totally get you. 800 million active users can’t be wrong, right? 

Fun in Isolation
For all its potential negatives, right now TikTok can be a lifeline to everyone stuck in isolation. “It’s a way of feeling like they’re part of something outside of their family unit. And it’s a good way of connecting with friends. It’s also a great opportunity for family bonding and getting into our kids’ worlds,” says Lauren Muriello, LPC, founder of the Well Being Therapy Center in Short Hills and Montville. 

Kristine Perillo, a Cliffside Park mom of two young girls, ages six and five, has always led a busy life—which has only amped up while working full time in quarantine with a spouse working an essential job who is gone all day.

“I find myself completely exhausted by the end of the night. Weekdays merge into to the weekend and the days just all seem the same,” says Perillo.“[TikTok] breaks up the day a bit and often times creates a small piece of ‘un-normalcy’ that makes it fun. I love to find dances on TikTok for my girls and husband to do together. We do the routines over and over again until we get it right and all of a sudden we have a video that now has become a memory.” 

It’s also great as a break from the bleak. “Reading the news often can be a lot so TikTok also creates this outlet for all of us. Even if it only lasts for a few minutes,” she adds.  

Make it Part of Your Routine
“Set aside time every day. Don’t talk about the coronavirus, news, schoolwork. Just have some fun,” says Muriello, adding the obvious: “What tween doesn’t want to log on to TikTok for some fun?” 

Limits are important, of course. TikTok’s quick feedback and short-attention-span format can become very addicting (don’t we know it). As such, Muriello suggests that 15 minutes a day is plenty. She also suggests creating a new account to keep family videos separate from their personal one (thank goodness, say kids everywhere). 

Loving the likes? “Make sure you strike a balance between family bonding time and giving your kids the space to connect with their friends in private. All the usual rules and guidelines apply, but we can celebrate the ability to stay connected to friends through social media. Just remember to put the phones down every day too, and schedule non-tech bonding,” advises Muriel, noting that board games, puzzles, workouts, walks, movie nights, are just a few alternatives for breaking and bonding sans tech. 

A Peek Into Their World
Another benefit of TikToking together? The stealth ability to keep a closer eye on your child’s feed, friends, and followers without making it weird. According to Melissa Straub, founder of High Impact Youth Training Solutions in Leonia, an educational consulting firm specializing in online security and social media, the primary danger to kids is not just the occasional unsavory content and seedy strangers (common to all social media platforms) but the “challenges” which are super popular on TikTok and can range from silly to dangerously unsafe (like the infamous “skull breaker” prank challenge that sent numerous kids to the ER). There’s also the potential for hurt feelings, as certain friends generate oodles of likes and comments while your baby hears crickets. 

“Parents need to be present and aware of what their kids are doing online,” she says. “By being involved in the fun, parents are better positioned to foster open, honest discussions about what’s out there, as well as what to do if they come across something questionable or concerning.”  

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