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TikTok Challenges: Crossing Consent and Relationship Boundaries

Feb 10, 2022
girl siting on a couch, looking at her phone and wearing ear buds.

It’s hard to ignore TikTok’s impact on teen culture. TikTok has been an important source of connection and coping for teens in the pandemic, as it provides an outlet for shared experiences and humor. In fact, TikTok is the most visited website in the world, even more popular than Google and Facebook. Despite its popularity, many adults have questions about TikTok, including its safety, security and influence on teen identity and relationships.

What Is TikTok?

TikTok is a video-based social media platform on which users can create short videos using popular sound clips or music. TikTok uses a variety of features and artificial intelligence to create the “For You” page (FYP), a personalized video feed based on what the user watches, likes, comments on and searches.

The complex FYP means that teens do not have to follow an account to see content, including viral trends. Popular sounds and hashtags are shown on TikTok’s Discover page and users can “duet” with popular videos by recording their own video that plays alongside the original content.

What Are TikTok Challenges?

TikTok conducted a survey that found 1 in 5 teens had participated in at least one “challenge” through the app. Most of these challenges were fun and silly, like learning a new dance or baking feta pasta. However, some of the challenges encouraged harmful behaviors – 1 in 50 teens participated in a challenge considered to be risky or dangerous.

In September of 2021, the #deviouslicks challenge made national headlines for school bathroom damage. This challenge also included dares to kiss a friend’s girlfriend, expose genitals and touch breasts. TikTok intervened and videos with related content have been banned. If a user searches #deviouslicks on TikTok’s Discover page, they will find TikTok’s community guidelines.

Some of these risky challenges encourage teens to cross boundaries in relationships. For example, the #kissyourbestfriend challenge dares teens to record themselves kissing a best friend without consent. Many teens do not understand that forced kissing is a form of sexual violence. Follow up videos included teens who said they felt confused, uncomfortable, and violated by the nonconsensual kissing.   

The #IKnowSomethingYouDont trending hashtag is included on videos that joke about secrets, including in relationships. Popular videos include:

  • Stalking on social media, including getting information about a partner from the accounts of ex partners or family members.
  • Cheating, including lying about ongoing relationships with multiple partners.
  • Grooming, including older teens making false promises to younger teens.

The videos are edited to be funny and lighthearted, even though the topics are serious. This can be confusing for teens who have similar experiences.

Why Are TikTok Challenges So Popular?

Given the serious dangers associated with some challenges, many adults question why teens would watch or engage in the videos. It is developmentally appropriate for young people to seek connection, and social engagement is a critical part of identity development. Teens report that challenges make them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, which is especially important during this time of social isolation. Challenges on TikTok provide short boosts of feel-good brain chemicals through shared recognition and humor.

Teens are more likely to engage in TikTok challenges than adults because certain parts of their brains, like those responsible for critical thinking, may not fully develop until their late 20s/early 30s. Young people may have difficulty assessing the danger or risk of a challenge, especially if they see a friend complete it successfully. They may have difficulty regulating their emotions and might post a video before thinking about any consequences.

How Can Adults Prepare Youth to Navigate TikTok Challenges?

There are many ways for adults to support teens. 

  • Start by talking about relationships early and often. It’s important to talk to teens about relationships, including healthy, unhealthy, and abusive behaviors. Teens can benefit from identifying boundaries as well as what to do when someone crosses those boundaries in a relationship. More information can be found on the Love is Respect website.
  • Communicate about family values related to social media. Research indicates that teens want their caregivers’ trust and respect through open dialogue about online safety. A focus on the quality of their screen time and exit strategies (code words between teens and caregivers) can help teens learn to manage risk on their own. Common Sense Media offers articles and guidance for adults who want to keep their families safe and productive online, including a Family Toolkit developed in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • Be aware of your responses to other teens on TikTok. The TikTok survey found that 66% of teens sought support and advice related to online challenges, often from friends and family members. Rather than making judgements about videos and risking your teen shutting down, It is more effective to approach with curiosity. You can say things like, “Tell me more” or “I’m curious what you think about that trend.”
  • Use the Digital Well-Being Tools from TikTok. These tools include Screen Time Management, Media Literacy, and age restrictions, including discoverability and direct messages. More information can be found here.
  • Provide off-screen activities that support a sense of belonging. Can teens take the lead on certain family activities or decisions? Do they have authentic friendships at school or other community spaces? Is there a club, sport or activity that can help them to develop a passion or interest? These positive social connections can help buffer against social risks online.

The Center for Family Safety and Healing has more information about teen dating abuse and other tools to support families.

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Caitlin Tully
Caitlin Tully
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

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