Achilles’ high heels: why TikTok is catnip for teenage girls
Unless you’re exceptionally street-wise, if you’re over the age of thirty the words ‘mint’ and ‘strawberry’ probably spring to mind when you hear the word ‘TikTok’. This article is for you – especially if you have children.
At 23, I like to think myself somewhat down-with-the-kids, and having relatively recently been a teenage girl, I regret to forewarn that much of the below is empathic as much as it is academic.
I downloaded the app out of curiosity, but found myself drawn in by a morbid fascination at the anthropological horrors I unearthed.
I discovered that TikTok is a siren call for teenage girls who, as we all know, crave validation.
What’s lesser-known, and what became clear to me, is that TikTok incubates the very factors that make the need for validation so profound. Its ingenious formula exploits this Achilles’ Heel, pushing teens to chase affirmation from the virtual world in a toxic symbiosis of adolescent psychology and social conditioning.
It’s an underworld for healthy social interaction. If TikTok is Hades, then Cerberus is an ungodly threesome of narcissism, creative aridity and algorithmic genius. Let’s explore the heads of this slightly tortured analogy.
All people are narcissistic, but some are more narcissistic than others. Some are a touch egotistical, some require a therapist versed in DSM-5, but some are just teenagers.
TikTok nurtures narcissism by encouraging users to make themselves the focal point of their videos in a way no other social network does quite so permissively. And this, I posit, is why it’s such a hit with teens.
The app’s USP is that it lets you repurpose other users’ audio, for which you record an accompanying video using a glut of funky editing features. Consequently, one can expect their feed to teem with near-identical videos distinguishable only by the studying the faces of their self-appointed stars.
What determines the content of these videos is the popularity of whatever ‘trends’ are coursing through the network at any given time, gaining traction every time someone uses the relevant hashtags and signature audio (or ‘sound’, in TikTok-speak).
“What are these trends?” I hear you ask. “Are people dispensing careers advice, or sharing insights on modern history?” I’m afraid not - you’ll have to stick to LinkedIn for that. They are rather more vacuous, and indeed I have devised a sliding scale to represent the tariff of ‘creative aridity’ they attract.
- Acting: arguably the format with the most scope for originality, users often ‘lip-sync’ to an amusing audio clip from a TV show or another user’s TikTok so they can add their flair to whatever message the clip intends to convey. Occasionally users will put a fun twist on the theme, taking the humour in a different direction. But generally, these videos are carbon copies that add nothing to the original dialogue.
- Dancing videos: most people only know the dance for the Macarena, but today’s kids pass time by learning and then recording their attempt at dance videos which often come with the added advantage of provocative moves and sexual lyrics. Jackpot!
- Literally just lip-syncing: professional drag queens lip-syncing to a song whilst dancing on stage in six-inch heels is one, rather impressive, thing. People sitting in their bedroom, mouthing the words to an audio clip and posting that to the internet is quite another. Yet compilations of both can be found on YouTube.
- Finally, the miscellaneous category of people merely posing into the camera whilst a (substantially more entertaining) audio clip plays. Ground-breaking stuff.
Either I’m a cynical sourpuss, or these trends are a little vapid. And, I imagine, for people a few decades or even years my senior, incomprehensible as a form of entertainment. (Whatever happened to playing with a wooden catch-ball?)
So, understanding their ubiquity requires a bit of context.
It’s no secret that, even as educated adults, social media wilts our attention spans, making a long-form article a daunting prospect when a self-contained tweet beckons a brief scroll away.
But when you’re growing up in the digital age, the dopamine hit of new likes and followers, or the instant gratification of a TikTok or a meme, are ever-present companions. Taking root as a teen develops neural pathways, it’s hard to imagine that constant use of these apps won’t be influential during these formative years.
Whilst this helps explain why apps like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter are so popular among teens, it’s the content that thrives on TikTok that sets it apart.
Instagram, although comparably insipid, bears a sort of healthy stigma around only posting pictures of oneself - if one isn’t a paid ‘influencer’ making a living through them, that is. For its flaws, Twitter commentary at least tends to foster honesty, originality and contemporaneity. Facebook is too archaic to warrant comment, and YouTube tends to attract those who care enough for the quality of their uploads to invest considerable time and effort into producing somewhat valuable content.
But the nature of the videos that go viral on TikTok make the interests of the app’s users self-evident. What they all have in common is that first, and if you’ll pardon the pun, most dogged of Cerberus’s heads: narcissism.
Having been presented with dozens of iterations of the same trends in my few short weeks of having this app, it’s hard to imagine the motivation for joining the bandwagon besides a thirst for the spotlight. One simple example is the ‘me as a cartoon character’ trend, whereby users display themselves in several outfits representing an everyday outfit, a party ensemble, a crime-fighting uniform and beachwear. People could just as easily share clips of themselves polishing their shoes, or discussing their maths homework. Yet it is these appearance-focused trends that define the app, laying bare the kind of validation its most active participants – teenage girls – seek.
Hunger for validation of this sort is no doubt a product of the material these teens are exposed to, primarily through Instagram: homogeneous models, or ‘influencers’, loom large in fitness circles, whilst Hollywood icons complement their on-screen presence with endless photoshoots, and musicians rarely go mainstream if they lack the prerequisite good looks. The Kardashians, albeit a slightly dated reference now, are widely regarded as talentless, but that doesn’t make them any less popular.
But who are these teenagers, really? They are easy to mock from the vantage point of adulthood, blatantly, yet the underlying psychology driving these teens is universal. These are typically girls with relatively comfortable lives, but who are nonetheless navigating the difficult process of forming their self-identity. Invoking Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reveals some common ground.
These girls are young enough to lack real responsibilities and their rudimentary human needs are taken care of. Their parents secure their basic physiological requirements of food of water, along with their general security and access to resources. It is their psychological needs for love and belonging, and beyond that their sense of esteem, that are served by TikTok – but not necessarily fulfilled.
In Maslow’s day, amidst the turbulence of wartime America, the playing field was rather different. The presence of a happy family and good friendships would be regarded as a solid foundation in the pursuit of ‘self-actualisation’, i.e. becoming the best version of oneself.
Peers and parents could recognise and reward positive traits that inform a teenager’s self-image, as a loyal friend, a diligent student, and a kind sister, perhaps. Granted, they still can. But social media introduces new virtues that parents and teachers are unlikely to recognise, validate or encourage.
When socialisation takes place in this novel virtual world, self-affirmation suffers mission creep. No longer is it sufficient to be loyal, diligent and kind if a teen sees value in being sexual, exhibitionist and, by corollary, narcissistic.
If a parent or teacher was even aware of a young woman’s digital persona, they would probably be appalled. Recognition for these traits therefore has to be found online, entrenching the virtual world as a forum for teenage self-exploration - a forum simultaneously detached from reality and intrinsic to their developing sense of self.With the introduction of new social factors alien to people just a few years older, otherwise valid theories of adolescence quickly become antiquated. The advent of social media confuses decades of academic research, and TikTok happens to be its most baffling agent to date.
Even without TikTok, the goal of self-actualisation may be a rather grandiose ambition for a teenager. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking whether this cultural conditioning is an impediment to genuine self-discovery. Lured into divesting valuable time from other activities, social media denies girls the opportunity to work out what they truly enjoy. Unfortunately, when you swap your phone for another human being, no number of likes or followers can substitute for a rounded personality (or even one of a cynical sourpuss).
But, TikTok is its own antidote. Participating in trends requires no originality, and consuming the content requires no critical thinking. Gone are the days when you needed a talent, skill or occasion to justify publishing footage of yourself to the entire planet. Rather if you, like most people, are unexceptional, then TikTok is the platform for you.
That is TikTok’s genius: its trends offer a legitimate excuse to get in the frame. There’s no need to be camera-shy under the wing of a trend that positively compels you to square up to the lens. But, its success is down to more than just the behaviour of the people who use it. The app’s genius programming makes it a far richer source of likes and views than any of its competitors.
Perhaps most tantalising is the app’s inbuilt propensity to take things viral. Whereas Facebook and Instagram are largely closed circuits, in that a user is unlikely to reach people beyond their immediate following, TikTok takes a leaf from Twitter’s book and puts it on steroids.
Firstly, Twitter’s logic of having not only the hashtags but also the body text of tweets appear when one uses the site’s search bar is doubled down by TikTok’s ‘sound’ feature. When users post a video with a particular ‘sound’ (be that a song clip, an extract from a TV show, or another TikTokker’s original speech), their video joins the ranks of others that appear when you browse that ‘sound’ in the same way you can browse a hashtag. Of course, the difference between tweets with the same hashtag and TikToks with the same sound is that the latter are likely to be almost identical.
Secondly, the app’s idiosyncratic ‘For You Page’ is an unapologetic echo chamber. The home page offers two options: videos from people you follow, and videos recommended for you on the ‘FYP’. The algorithm is such that if one encounters say, a ‘me as a cartoon character’ video, and decides to peruse others from the genre, then the app will reward you with several more from the same sound the next time you log in. Ergo, the cycle of repetition continues as TikTokkers can expect their contributions to be fast-tracked to receptive audiences.
Thirdly, the app’s simplicity appeals to a generally younger demographic, lending it a less discerning and therefore more proactive audience. You’d be hard-pressed to find any (self-respecting) adult partaking in an outfit video, but the shameless youth of the interweb have no qualms in submitting to the groupthink, whether that’s as a creator or a spectator.
Finally, TikTok’s ease of use makes a wealth of effects and editing features accessible to people who previously had nothing more than iMovie to play with. One can self-time, cut, overlay, zoom, crop and filter to dazzling degrees of complexity. As long as the videos are under sixty seconds, the FYP is your oyster.
Together, these brilliant features make for a truly formidable app, and a potent tool in the pocket of wannabes the world over.
It’s hard to blame teenage girls for flocking to this app like moths to a flame when their environment plainly values physical appearances and the ability to dance over the cultivation of actual interests.
All that remains is to congratulate TikTok for figuring this out.
Ellie is a freelance journalist who wishes she was a satirist but has spent most of her time producing political news for the BBC, which she's told is the same thing. She can't decide if she agrees with her opinions about the world so will write about them until she makes up her mind. She is reluctantly on Twitter @_machiavellie_.