A co-educational private school for Preschool–Grade Eight

TikTok: The Heartbreak of Middle School and Social Media

Teen student on the internet

This blog post was written by Emily Seelaus, Director of Upper School.

I’ve had a steep TikTok learning curve as a parent and educator. Although I always knew that TikTok was out there and dangerous for young kids, like most parents and teachers, I didn’t take the time to educate myself about this social media platform or its implications for a typical middle school child. I take pride in that my middle school-aged daughter doesn’t have a cellphone or social media. It turns out this wasn’t enough. This platform has altered her social life and my professional life—two recent incidents have changed how I understand my role as a parent and school administrator. While the incidents were unrelated, they are both critical aspects of the landscape our children are navigating in middle school.

Early in the school year, a girl in my daughter’s fifth-grade class created a video on TikTok, using the app on her cellphone, about how weird my daughter was and how no one wanted to be around her. The TikTok video was shown to her classmates quietly during school when the teacher wasn’t paying attention. The school allows students to have their cell phones in their backpacks as long as they are turned off. As any educator knows, unless supervised, no student turns off their phone during the school day. Cellphones are powerfully addictive, and tweens’ and teens’ developing brains make them especially vulnerable to addiction. A survey by Common Sense Media found that half of the teenagers surveyed felt addicted to their phones, and 78 percent checked them hourly or more.

A little later in the same school year, our school’s administration discovered that a group of our middle school students had created a TikTok account using the school's name and logo. On this TikTok account, students’ pictures were posted (typically one boy and one girl), and other students were asked: “ship or dip?”  Ship or dip is a TikTok challenge where viewers are asked to say whether or not the couple would be cute together (ship) or not cute together (dip). As the school investigated, it became evident that many of the pictures of students were posted without their consent. The images were copied and pasted from other accounts or websites. In addition, we discovered that some female students presented themselves as much older than they were—heavily made up and dressed inappropriately. They are only 12 or 13 years old.  

How are these two stories related? In both scenarios, I encountered parents and teachers who said things like: “I don’t know how TikTok works,” “I am too old for this stuff,” “She told me she wasn’t on TikTok,” “My child would never do that.” If you allow your child to have a phone before high school.” The truth is that, as an adult, you need to educate yourself on what is out there. I, too, thought that if I didn’t get my daughter a phone, she would be fine. I was wrong.

I get asked this question all the time: “Should I get my child a phone?” The answer is complex. The answer would be simple if today’s phones were merely a device to communicate, make calls, and send text messages. But we don’t have the luxury of simple phones anymore. When you buy your child a cellphone, they can access Youtube, social media, and the internet, each of which carries a huge responsibility. There are many examples in parenting when we get our children lessons in something or educate ourselves on how to do something before we allow them to do it. We do this with driving lessons, swim lessons, math tutoring, and a million other activities when we want our children to be successful. We have to do with this social media and phones as well. We owe it to our children and the children they come in contact with every day. Giving your child access to social media without understanding it yourself or teaching them how to use it responsibly can cause irreparable damage. Don’t make that mistake.

Sometimes, a child will lie. It happens. In both situations mentioned above, parents said, “My child doesn’t have TikTok.” Believe it or not, children can hide the app on their devices (TikTok is not just for cell phones!). View this video to learn more about how they can do that.

Did you know that TikTok offers Family Pairing that allows you to customize safety settings, including daily screen time, restricted mode, search, discoverability, suggest accounts to others, direct messages, linked videos, and comments? You can read about it on TikTok’s website under the User Safety section

It’s important to remember that social media is constantly evolving. Stay in the know and learn about TikTok’s newest updates

You must help your child understand that social media can permanently affect their reputation, education, and future. We recommend that middle school students refrain from using TikTok or creating a TikTok account. 

We encourage you to do the following with technology at home. Following these steps will help support the proper use of technology and reaffirm the importance of digital citizenship both in and out of school. 

  • Know your child’s passwords for all social media accounts.
  • Follow and monitor your child on all social media.
  • Keep the bedroom a technology-free zone.
  • At bedtime, take your child’s phone away.
  • Remove iMessage from your child’s computer.
  • Become the sole authorized user on iTunes and have children ask permission to download or open any apps.

Parents must take time to oversee technology at home to prevent any additional issues that could cause reputational harm to their child and their future.