When my kids were little, our nightly bedtime routine consisted of brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, and snuggling up to read a book or two. Every other night, a bath was added to this routine. Sometimes we would sing a few songs.
My kids are 15 and 11 now, and our bedtime routine looks nothing like it used to. Now I shout at them to brush teeth from my bed where I’m usually still pecking away at an article late in the evening. And then comes the fun part: my tween and teenager climb into bed with me, I set aside my laptop, and we snuggle up for some … TikTok.
Yes, you read that right. TikTok.
Like many Gen Xers, I resisted joining TikTok. The TikTok videos that passed through my other social feeds were mostly of teenagers doing trendy dances that, were I to attempt them, would literally snap my spine. But various friends who had downloaded the app insisted that TikTok has something for everyone and I should at least check it out. I still resisted, until one day while I was scrolling Twitter, I learned there is such a thing as “Lesbian TikTok.”
My queer ass downloaded TikTok that day.
So, the TikTok algorithm bullseyes your interests with unsettling quickness. I’m a person who cares about equality and equity, a history buff, a musician, a writer. I care about parsing the nuance from complex social issues. I’m fascinated by all varieties of science, psychology, sociology, the way humans interact with one another and define themselves. I’m a feminist. Oh, and I love a cute video of a dog grumbling obstinately at its person. If you were to scroll my TikTok feed, all of this would be glaringly apparent.
Almost immediately, my kids started watching over my shoulder — drawn by the catchy musical backgrounds and efficiently edited micro-speeches from various social justice experts and scientists, they soon settled in by my side to absorb my personally curated version of TikTok.
Sometimes they’d nod their heads at what the person was saying. Sometimes they would ask, “Is that true?” and we’d discuss or research further. The positive masculinity videos have been really helpful in explaining women’s issues to my son. He’d bristled a bit at the idea of women being afraid of “all men,” not liking the idea that he may be lumped in with “creepy men.”
But he got it after listening to a few videos of men explaining that, of course, women know it’s not literally “all men,” but since we can’t know who is or isn’t dangerous simply by looking at them, our safest bet is to maintain a position of suspicion of, yes, all men. He also understands that silence in the face of misogyny is a form of enabling and makes you part of the problem.
Once he heard other people besides his mom explaining these concepts to him, he was more receptive. I was able to explain that I am similarly not offended when I hear the phrase “white women” used in a derogatory way. I am a member of a social group that is collectively problematic. It’s reasonable for any person of color to be suspicious of me, for me to have to earn their trust, or for them to simply choose not to interact with me at all as a form of self-care. I am in no position to question this.
Body positivity videos teach my daughter that she is perfect how she is, that exercise should be for health and enjoyment, not weight loss, and that she was not put on this earth to please anyone with her appearance.
TikTok has helped me introduce my kids to the current events and histories of indigenous peoples, Black folks, immigrants, and the queer community.
Sometimes anti-spanking or gentle parenting videos will come up, and my kids, recognizing a technique I’ve used, will say, “Oh, is that why you’re like that with us?”
Sometimes I’ll disagree with one of these videos. One came through that suggested parents allow their tweens to shout at them without consequences — to deal with the need of the adolescent rather than the manner in which they expressed their need. I told my daughter I disagreed with that, because although it’s true that all feelings are valid, it’s also my job to teach her how to communicate her needs in a way that people will hear, and that I also have a right to be spoken to in a respectful manner. I told her part of the reason I expect to be spoken to respectfully is that I am modeling how I hope she will expect to be spoken to by future friends, colleagues, and partners. She told me she thought that made sense.
Of course, there are also plenty of videos of cute dogs, amazing singers, and talented dancers mixed in with all of the weightier topics.
The point is, TikTok opens up discussions with my kids that I may otherwise neglect to bring up, despite my best intentions. Watching TikTok together educates them (and me) and strengthens our relationship. It gives us things to learn about, things to talk about, things to care about.
When my kids are at their dad’s house, I send TikToks to them via our group chat. It’s a small but meaningful way to stay connected when they’re not under my roof. And when they’re with me, TikTok is officially part of our bedtime routine. Every night before bed, my 11-year-old daughter climbs into bed with me after brushing her teeth, and we watch 15 or 20 minutes of TikTok together. My 15-year-old son, always slower to get his teeth brushed, usually climbs in with us a little later, but each night the three of us have this time together to be both entertained and educated by, of all things, a social media app.
TikTok, the app that I was supposed to be “too old” for, is bringing me closer to my kids. What a time to be alive.