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WKYT Investigates | The power and pull of Tik-toxic trends

Why do even the harmful trends catch on so quickly and so strongly?
Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 10:42 AM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - It is one of the most popular apps in the world.

Globally, TikTok has been downloaded more than three billion times, analysts say.

Much of the social network’s appeal comes through its short video clips that can keep teens entertained as they keep scrolling.

“In a world where attention span is shorter and shorter, it is great for a short attention span,” said Steve Hamrin, a technology expert and owner of Hartland Computer Services.

Because of its enticement for engagement, trends can spread in no time.

“It’s all in the algorithms,” Hamrin said. “If there’s something that you like, there’s other people just like you - they know your profile - so they say, ‘Well, if you like it, maybe this guy will like it.’”

However, vandalism at several central Kentucky schools shows that some viral trends are more damaging than just the latest dance craze.

So, why do even the harmful trends catch on so quickly and so strongly?

Part of the answer lies in the very nature of those trends, said Dr. Nicky Lewis, an assistant communications professor at the University of Kentucky. Her research focuses on social psychological processes and effects of the mass media.

“If I’m scrolling through social media as a 13-, 14-year-old kid - and we’re very used to doing this - I’m going to see pictures of friends, OK, pretty common, things like that,” Lewis said. “Something that’s - whoa - shocking or unique or negative, I’m going to stop and take a look and give it more attention and more processing.”

There is some debate over whether copying those trends is done for acceptance or just attention, Lewis said, but the bottom line is that parents should not panic. After all, the behavior is not new; vandalism, pranks and the like have been going on for decades, just without the megaphone of social media to amplify it.

That platform can also amplify its consequences, Lewis said.

“It’s meaningful to discuss with your kids the power that they hold in the palm of their hand and that what they do online is permanent,” she told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer.

That is why she says there is a need now more than ever for media literacy - specifically digital literacy - at home and at school, starting when kids get their first smartphone.

At his computer business, Hamrin is often asked how parents can keep an eye on their kids’ online presence. He says there are some parental controls and settings that can help, but there are always ways around them - even as simple as using a friend’s phone or someone else’s wireless network.

And social media companies’ ways of moderating content can also be easily evaded. For example, once TikTok began cracking down on the “devious licks” hashtag, users simply spelled the word wrong or replaced a letter with an asterisk.

The best answer, he says, is old school.

“It’s in rules and agreements and trust - the basic elements of parenting,” he said.

He also said that many children will, inevitably, make some sort of mistake on social media.

“You give a kid the car keys, do you think he’s going to grow up to be 40 years old and never have a car crash? No, he’s probably going to bump into something or do something stupid,” Hamrin said. “The same thing’s going to happen on social media probably.”

That is why experts say those conversations about consequences are so important, to explain how a quick decision made for a short social media video can have lifelong ramifications.

Lewis said some parents are hesitant to talk with their children about social media use because of their lack of knowledge about the technology. You can use some of the resources below to help inform yourself and guide your conversations.

Resources

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