After observing her daughter’s extensive creativity and perseverance in producing TikTok videos, Shauna Pomerantz, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in Brock University’s Department of Child and Youth Studies, began to wonder if there might be something worth exploring in the platform other than, as she describes it, the “backdrop of surveillance and fear surrounding kids’ lives online.”
Is your collaborative TikTok research a product of social distancing, or had you already started working on it before the COVID-19 crisis? Was your daughter already a TikTok user? Were you?
SP: Miriam and I began our research when physical distancing and social isolation were just on the horizon. Once schools closed, I had no idea how great it was going to be to have this project to work on while we were in the house all day, everyday – and especially because young people’s social media usage has really increased under these circumstances. Suddenly, the research took on a dramatic new twist and gave us both something to look forward to.
I asked Miriam to be my co-researcher because I watched her make TikToks all over the house and became interested in it as a form of creativity, interconnectedness, and fun. She took it very seriously as an art-form, but she also laughed so hard when she made these short videos by herself.
She was a master of the form, and I knew I could not really understand TikTok without her – she was the expert and I could only ever be her pupil.
TikTok is a web-based app with 1.5 billion+ users globally that enables its members to make short 15-60 second videos set to music that often includes lip synching, dancing, #challenges, sketch comedy, and insider jokes. Users often see it as different from other forms of social media because the main goal is to amuse and entertain rather than to look posed and polished, like on Instagram. One of the main reasons TikTok is so enjoyable is because acting goofy and making fun of yourself is the name of the game. Ironically, you get to dance as if no one was watching. I had skirted around the edges of TikTok before, but now that Miriam and I are co-researchers, we have watched dozens of TikToks together and posted a few dances to her account. I have loved every minute of it!
Can you describe what it is that you’re investigating?
SP: Given the backdrop of surveillance and fear surrounding kids’ lives on-line, Miriam and I are co-researching TikTok to offer a counter-narrative that shows its creative, generative, and formative force. The more common narrative criticizes social media as a gateway to inevitable danger, especially for girls, who are seen as more vulnerable than other social groups. What we hope to offer is a deep understanding of youth cultures by highlighting what TikTok can do as an artistic and imaginative forum for young people’s expression. As well, COVID-19 has opened a lot of dialogue about how much screen time kids should have and what counts as productive ‘learning’. I think our study will speak to this current context by showcasing TikTok as a different kind of learning that has value. Escapism, yes, but also engagement in the creative process, production, interconnection with friends and an online community, cultural literacy, and the cultivation of one’s own taste and style.
Can you share some details on how you are carrying out the research? Are you producing content or observing the work of others, or both?
SP: First, Miriam and I talked about what TikTok is and what she liked about it. She told me about her TikTok routines, and famous TikTokers that she follows. After that, we spent hours watching and making TikToks together. The best part of this entire process has been learning some of the TikTok dances from Miriam. She’s so good at them, it’s unbelievable! She practices hard and then spends time recording many takes until it’s right. When I did a dance with her, I wanted to be as good as she was, but I was just too much of a novice to fully emulate her abilities. Still, she managed to coach me through a few routines, and I was proud of the results.
In an earlier discussion about the project, you described it as being “radical and post-qualitative.” Can you expand on that a little?
SP: Our research process has been an interesting exercise in me letting go as the adult-researcher-expert. When we sit down to look at or make videos, Miriam is in charge. Sometimes she answers my questions, but mostly she redirects to something more interesting to her. Because I wanted to engage in an egalitarian conversation driven by Miriam’s experiences rather than my preconceived notions, our inquiry has been pretty experimental. Post-qualitative research suggests that you cannot follow a recipe or formula for collecting data but should, instead, feel out the moment and engage creative, radical new approaches. Even without this idea in mind, Miriam let me know that there was not going to be anything routine or repetitive in our TikTok hangouts. It was really liberating as a qualitative researcher to just let go and see what happens. The potential for new experiences is palpable.
Because this study is a collective mode of inquiry, Miriam and I will have the opportunity to learn from and question each other, making the research multidirectional rather than a traditional unidirectional investigation. This post-qualitative shift marks a significant change in power structures that govern the researcher/researched relationship and opens exciting new possibilities for knowledge production between young people and adults.
How do you plan to share this research?
SP: Our study will be included as a chapter in the Routledge anthology, Visual and Cultural Identity Constructs of Global Youth: Situated, Embodied and Performed Ways of Being, Engaging and Belonging, edited by Fiona Blaikie.
How has the experience shaped you as a researcher and/or a parent?
Doing research with my daughter has been a powerful and eye-opening experience. It has profoundly shifted my understanding of qualitative research because the very best moments have come from things that I did not plan and could not predict. I worked hard to get REB approval precisely because I felt that something unique and innovative would come of our research partnership. This innovation is partly born of the fact that we have a relationship outside of the study. Miriam feels comfortable to say ‘no’, to ignore me, to assert her own voice, to laugh at me, to decentre my adult-researcher power, and to shift the direction of the conversation. These amazing moments would not have been possible with unknown participants.
As a parent, I have come to appreciate her interest in and talent for making cool, funny, artsy videos. She has taught me a kind of critical media literacy that is relational rather than mandated by adults to kids. She has taught me to be humble about what I think I know about her. My awareness of Miriam on-line has certainly been heightened by being house-bound most of the day. While the project wasn’t born of COVID-19, this unprecedented context has made doing research with my daughter feel so much more meaningful. Every time we make a video, we forget about what is going on in the world and just laugh and laugh. I am so grateful for the opportunity to spend time with Miriam in this way, and I think we are both grateful for the distraction.
How old is your daughter, and may we share her name?
SP: Miriam Field is 11-years old. In my ethics application, I was given permission to use her name in publications because she is a co-researcher.
Miriam, what have you found most interesting since turning a researcher’s eye on your TikTok use?
MF: I think that most parents don’t really understand what TikTok means to kids and how it impacts their lives. But if they take the time to learn what their kids are doing, they might actually see that TikTok isn’t a bad influence and they might see that their kids enjoy TikTok and that it helps them a lot, especially during this isolation period. It helps them escape from the real world.
Researching TikTok with my mom is cool because it’s going to help explain things to parents that they don’t understand. And maybe, if you’re a parent, you should take the time to ask your kid to make a TikTok with them. First of all, it’s very good content for their TikTok accounts! And second of all, it’s really fun to see your kid’s world up close. If my mom can do it, any parent can do it!