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Is TikTok Propagandizing Our Kids?

What is TikTok teaching our kids about the world?

That’s been an important question for parents to grapple with for several years. But it’s especially relevant these days, given the fact that it’s the most popular social media app among teens right now.

In the recent past, parents have been concerned about any number of concerning trends related to the Chinese-owned app. It’s a pretty long list: dangerous challenges, sexually explicit content, pro-anorexia videos, predators, Chinese surveillance and myriad mental health concerns, among many other concerns.

TikTok As An Influencer

The last few weeks, however, TikTok has found itself once again in a spotlight. This time over concerns that the platform has, increasingly, become a megaphone for propaganda. The context? The Israel-Gaza conflict in particular and America’s relationship to the world in general.

TikTok, as well as Instagram and Facebook, has reportedly far more hashtags supporting Palestine and Israel. According to The Washington Post. “[The] number of TikTok videos with the #freepalestine hashtag is dramatically higher than those with #standwithisrael,” writes Drew Harwell.

And in the last week, the proverbial ghost of Osama Bin Laden has been haunting TikTok as well. His 2002 “Letter to America” caught viral fire there, reportedly prompting some young users to express sympathy for the deceased and infamous terrorist’s criticism of the U.S. One New York “lifestyle influencer” posted a video that said, “If you have read it, let me know if you are also going through an existential crisis in this very moment, because in the last 20 minutes, my entire viewpoint on the entire life I have believed, and I have lived, has changed,” according to CNN. (The video has since been removed.)

TikTok has responded by removing some posts related to this content, and the company commented, “Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe said. “We are proactively and aggressively removing this content and investigating how it got onto our platform. The number of videos on TikTok is small and reports of it trending on our platform are inaccurate. This is not unique to TikTok and has appeared across multiple platforms and the media.”

A New Discernment Challenge

Parents have long been aware of the potential for kids to see videos with explicit content or reckless behavior. Increasingly, though, the evolution of social media’s influence means that we have to coach and guide our kids through potential propaganda minefields when it comes to stories like these.

Social media can be a hotbed of emotional expression often that’s potentially severed from the nuance and context required to understand complex news stories, such as the current and ongoing conflict in Israel.

Even as we teach our kids discernment with regard to entertainment, then, we need to be modeling and intentionally equipping them with a parallel skill when it comes to news media. That involves teaching them to think critically and carefully about the emotional, sensational videos that they may come across online on platforms such as TikTok.

Teach Thinking Skills

We can teach them to ask a number of questions that will help give them the distance they need to think clearly about the images and ideas that they may encounter via social media:

  1. What is the source of this information?
  2. How credible is that source?
  3. Does the person creating this content have an obviously political or even theological point of view?
  4. What is that person’s point of view and personal experience?
  5. How are they responding in terms of their emotions, and how are they attempting to influence yours?
  6. How might you objectively think through claims that are being made in a given video?
  7. Does the video invite you to think in combative, “us vs. them” terms?
  8. How do you think comments on a given post are amplifying the ideas found in it?

These are questions that, as adults, might seem like common sense. But for kids with access to these platforms, those questions might never occur to them. Instead, in a moment—just as we see in the quote above—someone’s perspective can be emotionally swept down a stream of rage, with potentially damaging consequences.

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