3 Things TikTok Can Show You About Your Students

Josh Horton
March 16th, 2021

The simultaneous, often contradictory, potential benefits and detriments of technology (social media in particular) are well-documented. We’ve all read dozens of articles on its many advantages and disadvantages as we’ve tried to figure out how to best engage our students and meet them where they are while also maintaining boundaries and setting an example of healthy online consumption. One of the greatest advantages I’ve found with social media in my ministry is that it can provide a unique window into the mind, heart, and soul of a generation, often showcasing the desires, joys, thought-patterns, priorities, and even soul-level yearnings of its users.  

TikTok is a particularly interesting example of this. TikTok (in case you somehow haven’t heard) is a short-form video app where users create videos about… well, anything. They have access to an incalculably large database of audio tracks which may be paired with the videos they create, or they may simply record a video on their phone and post it directly. Users dance, record videos of their cats, lip sync to popular songs, and perform any other talents they may have. 

According to Forbes, more than 40% of TikTok’s 800 million users are between the ages of 16-24, and mobile data and analytics firm App Annie, estimates TikTok will surpass 1 billion active users in 2021. That’s a billion. With a “B!” 

In other words: Your students are on TikTok. And if they’re not yet, they likely will be soon. But while students will often work to maintain a specific, curated image on platforms like Instagram, TikTok is less about what you see and more about how what you see makes you feel. Or as one of my students put it when asked: “it’s about the vibe. TikTok’s vibe is like, more chill.” As unhelpful as that description is, through TikTok’s “more chill vibe,” I have seen my students and teenagers in general through a new window since joining. Here are 3 things that TikTok has shown me or reinforced about students which I’ve found helpful as I try to love students well. 

TikTok has shown me that students crave meaning.

One of the more intriguing TikTok trends I see students participating in features a slow, montague-like pan of something- a view, building, bedroom, etc.- with romantic music played over the top. A sort of romanticization of the mundane; a nostalgia for the basicness of life. 

In the context of a worldwide pandemic, we can draw some obvious connections as to why students may idealize normalcy. But with my students, I see that this draws on a deeper yearning- that they crave meaning in their lives. That amidst all of the distractions, loud noises and voices trying to pull them every which way, students have a true, deep, desire to see beauty in life- they just often don’t know where to look. 

What a gift that in Jesus, we can show students the most beautiful Person, Story, Lover, Teacher, and Friend one could ask for.

TikTok has shown me that students crave realness.

Ask any TikTok user the most annoying part of TikTok and their list will certainly include ads. That’s because on TikTok, where authenticity and in-the-moment, “how did we get that on video?” moments are particularly valued, ads that have been fabricated to appear authentic standout. On TikTok, when you’re a poser, it shows. Sounds like student ministry to me!

At my first part-time ministry job interning at a big church in Southern California, the youth pastor used to always tell this anecdote about a group of Jr. High girls who were somewhat of outsiders (into things like anime). He’d tried to find a small group leader for them with many different volunteers, but none of the adults felt they could connect with the students. That’s when Martha, an 80-year-old great-grandmother volunteered for Jr. High Ministry. She met the Jr. High girls, asked them questions, listened intently. The next week, she came to the youth group in a full-on kimono and had spent hours researching the girls’ favorite anime so that she could talk to them about it. That, the youth pastor said, showed that students don’t actually care how “cool” you are if you’re not willing to get real and get on their level. TikTok highlights my students craving for realness.

What a gift that in Jesus, we can show students the only person who will truly never leave or forsake us, no matter how real and vulnerable we get, and that when we know and are known by Jesus, our identity is secure in Him.

TikTok has shown me that students crave purpose.

This is hardly a new concept- we all crave purpose in life. But one of the more unique aspects of TikTok is the foundation it gives students to come together around a cause (whether positive or negative). One of the most fitting recent examples of this comes from the 2020 election, where teenagers on TikTok banded together to sell-out President Trump’s June 20th Tulsa rally, only to then not attend and see the President hold a rally to less fanfare than ticket sales projected. Now to be clear: I am not supporting or opposing the students’ actions. It does show though that students are yearning to be a part of a cause that is bigger than them, where they can feel like they’re making a real impact on the world. 

What a gift that in Jesus, we can show students a truer purpose- that our God is bringing restoration to this whole earth and invites us to be a part of bringing His Kingdom to this earth. 

Like any other media platform, TikTok has its obvious downfalls. But used as a window into the yearnings of today’s students, we see not only what students crave but also are given some direction as to how we can minister to them right now. We know that Jesus is always the answer- and TikTok shows us the questions that are on the minds and hearts of today’s students. Let us love them well, as He loves us!

Josh Horton

Josh is from Redlands, CA and is the oldest of 5 brothers. He loves being outdoors and riding his bike throughout LA's sprawling coffee scene with his fiancé Kristin, whom he met working at a Christian Summer Camp in California (classic). Josh is deeply passionate about being a consistent presence in the lives of teenagers and helping them to understand God's deep love for them.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.