At 22 years old, I am a Generation Z founding father. And as the youngest person in the office, everyone assumed I was an avid TikTok user. While I am familiar with it as a concept — a social media app used to create and share short, 15-second videos, I had assumed the app was an iteration of Vine (rest in peace) made for a new generation. I was wrong.
Similar to Instagram TV, videos immediately begin to play — and as I watch, I am appalled and quite frankly a little afraid. I feel like a parent who stumbled upon their kid’s diary and proceeds to read the entire thing because it is too hard to look away. Common themes on TikTok include endless peace signs, sticking your tongue out, wearing a lot of winged eyeliner, and braces.
Up until now, I have never felt “too old” for something, but this is the beginning of the end.
Even with such a young demographic (most users are in their early teens) the app was downloaded more times than Instagram in 2018 when they hit over a billion downloads, and it is now more popular than Snapchat and Twitter.
I ask my sister, who is in middle school, what the tea is with TikTok. I ask her to show me her channel, but she shyly refuses, and I make a mental note to find it later. “Why do you like TikTok compared to everything else?” I ask her. “I don’t know, it’s just cool,” says my sister. She adds, “I am bored all the time, so this is fun for me.” She also shares that teachers have started to confiscate cell phones because kids keep taking bathroom breaks to make TikToks.
Perhaps the appeal comes from how comfortable everyone seems to be with themselves. Rather than a generation of children conforming to the stereotypical high school tropes, it now seems to be a competition of who can be the strangest. But as we have seen before, the counterculture often becomes the culture (e.g. the popular VSCO girl trend).
Rather than a generation of children conforming to the stereotypical high school tropes, it now seems to be a competition of who can be the strangest.
You know the feeling when Facebook shows you a status from eight years ago and you cringe in horror knowing you were once that person? Cringeworthy videos run amok on this app like an infectious disease. But in this new age, cringe sells. Think romantic comedy breakout star Noah Centineo. While his boyish looks helped land him roles, his personality helped catapult him into superstardom. Teenage girls fall for floppy hair, kind eyes, and boys who have to explicitly tell you that they are the “good guys.”
These TikTok “celebrities” (or “influencers”) have built followings that surpass Hollywood A-Listers. Here are some numbers: Oscar winners Brie Larson and Natalie Portman have a respective 6.6 million and 4.8 million followers on Instagram. Lizzo, whose song “Truth Hurts” is at the top of the Billboard charts right now, has 4.7 million Instagram followers. Now take TikTok star Loren Gray who has 33.2 million TikTok fans (and 17.6 million Instagram followers) and Jacob Sartorius who has 21 million TikTok fans (and nine million Instagram followers).
Somehow short video clips produced in untidy bedrooms have amassed the power to turn average people into superstars overnight.
This idea of relatability is probably why TikTok stars do so well. These children are a product of growing up with social media and reality television. While stars back in the day were mysterious and elusive, these new celebrities are over-sharers.
Where Justin Bieber was once an anomaly for reaching superstardom at such a young age, this new generation of celebrity brings me back to the “’Baby’ era” sans any real musical talent, thanks to lip syncing. This idea that any one of us can make it big is alluring in its own right. None of these stars are exceptionally beautiful or talented. There is not one singular body type, sexual orientation or race (although it appears that a lot of TikTok superstars are Caucasian).
And brands are eager to tap into this market. TikTok was ad-free until 2019 when they quietly introduced a biddable ad unit. Companies like Chipotle, Uniqlo, and Hollister also partner with TikTok influencers to create content more organic than the sponsored content found on Instagram. (The NFL recently announced a two-year partnership with TikTok in order to tap into this younger demographic.)
With such young users it was only a matter of time until the company ran into trouble. In 2019, the company settled a $5.7 million lawsuit over a FTC claim that they violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). While you legally have to be 13 to register for the app — COPPA prohibits collecting personal information from children under the age of 13 without parental consent — there is no way to keep children younger than that from lying. This settlement makes it to where TikTok must delete videos created by those under 13, but is nearly impossible to tell.
The algorithm creates a helpful “for you” tab tailored to your interests, but I want to know who the megastars are. My sister shares that list with me, and I will share it with you. Keep scrolling for seven of the biggest TikTok stars out there. Shocker: they are all under 20 years old.
Loren Gray, 17
Loren Gray is the most followed person on TikTok and transitioned from lip siyncing popular songs to creating her own pop songs. She has been nominated for two Kids’ Choice Awards and is signed to Virgin Records and Capitol Records.
33.2 million fans
Ariel Martin, 18
After being the first person to pass 20 million followers on the app, Ariel Martin can now be found on both the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Martin is signed to Creative Artists Agency and has released six songs since 2017. When she isn’t lip syncing to her own songs on TikTok, she can be found releasing “story times” and duets with other internet stars.
29.8 million fans
Jacob Sartorius, 16
Jacob Sartorius has had a busy few years — he dated “Stranger Things’” Millie Bobby Brown and just released his fourth EP this past May. Business Insider dubbed Sartorius the next Justin Bieber in 2016, but only time will tell how far his music career goes.
21 million fans
Josh Richards, 17
Josh Richards, Canadian social star known for his good looks, has landed roles in three movies since catapulting to stardom. He sells his own merch on Instagram, which is what all the TikTokers seem to be doing nowadays.
7.6 million fans
Payton Moormeier, 16
My sister informs me that all her friends find Payton Moormeier to be very attractive. (I chuckle at this.) The California native can be found shirtless dancing with his friends at any hour of the day.
4.9 million fans
Benji Krol, 18
Canadian Tik Tok star Benji Krol is known for his short comedy skits, pasting star stickers on his face, and brushing his teeth to Billie Eillish. His Instagram bio reads, “hi um idk what I’m doing,” which I second.
4.9 million fans
Avani Gregg, 16
Avani Gregg can be found aimlessly posing on TikTok along with the lip syncing videos we are all familiar with at this point. She is also a gymnast, which means we get to see her do flips every now and then.
4.4 million fans