TikTok and tweens: How do young people and their parents view social media use?

Written by Gavin Duffy

Each month, the Centre’s HDR students meet as the Journal Club to discuss a topical piece of literature around digital childhoods.

The Journal Club offers a space for higher degree by research students to discuss research theories, strategies, and methodologies relevant to early childhood research. This includes discussion of how research students would like to see the research furthered and how they could approach this themselves.

At a recent meeting, we discussed De Leyn et al’s (2021) In-between child’s play and teenage pop culture: tweens, TikTok & privacyThis article details qualitative interviews conducted in Flanders, Belgium around how both tweens and their parents view TikTok (or, rather, tween use of TikTok). This article was chosen as tweens (defined by De Leyn et al as between 8 and 12 years old) are often left out of social media research. This population group is seen as particularly vulnerable in terms of research but is also technically not supposed to be using social media platforms like TikTok at all. By TikTok’s own use policy, users are supposed to be 13 years or older. It is no secret, however, that age verification does not happen on social media and that younger children regularly use social media platforms anyway (see Lenhart & Owens, 2021 on the willing ignorance of big tech companies around ‘real’ user age). Thus, tweens almost always act outside of the intended use of mainstream social media platforms, always conducting a resistant reading in their platform use, making them an interesting research population. 

In addition to tweens, the inclusion of parents was of note in this article. The parents here all approved of (or, at least, allowed) the use of TikTok by their tweens despite the platform’s intended age range and traditional moral panics around young people’s online presentations of self (see Facer, 2012; and the recent Australian Government Privacy Bill, 2021). The parents interviewed claimed to recognise the concerns around online privacy but treat it with nuance, specific to their own child’s use of TikTok. Thus, some parents discussed issues of online safety and privacy very directly with their children, with one parent in particular being very forthcoming about their concern around online sexual predators to their child. Others chose to put off these apparently awkward conversations and conducted more rigid oversight of their child’s TikTok use, including reading their messages and requiring parental approval for each video posted. 

Through the qualitative methodology employed in the research, De Leyn et al (2021) were able to draw out these differences in parental oversight, while also acknowledging how blurry these boundaries really were: some of the parents who said they were not concerned about their child’s use of TikTok were the same who monitored their child’s messages. In this sense, the article served to highlight the ‘human’ aspect of social media, centring child-parent dynamics over a technological deterministic view of the TikTok platform. This human element of social media use was extended to the data collected from the tweens as well. Tweens were presented as having an ‘in-flux’ identity, as seeing themselves as neither child nor teenager. De Leyn et al use this idea of the situational identity to reject linear notions of ageing and ‘growth’, instead again reflecting on the importance of each tween’s own background and identity. In this sense, the article reflects the broader experience of ‘growing up’ as much as it does the specific experience of TikTok use. 

The article did prompt some questions from the group about areas for future research. The primary question was around those tween who do not use TikTok. It may be easy to assume that every young person is on the platform but only around 44% of those aged between 6-12 use TikTok regularly (De Leyn et al, 2021, citing Demeulenaere et al, 2020). De Leyn et al (2021) discuss the importance of TikTok use for tweens to engage in youth subculture (e.g. knowing which dances to do on the playground or which influencers are important) but what do those tweens who do not use TikTok regularly do here? How does youth subculture get disseminated beyond the platform, to those outside of this engagement loop? And what is the dynamic like between these tweens and their parents around social media use, if it is the latter’s decision to disallow regular use of TikTok? These are not critiques of De Leyn et al’s data; rather, they are jumping off points we drew from their data, taking inspiration from the article itself. The platformisation of youth and of growing up will continue to persist (be it on TikTok or any other platform), making the area of intersection between those tweens who do use a platform and those who do not continually of interest and worth examining.


De Leyn, T., De Wolf, R., Vanden Abeele, M., & De Marez, L. (2021). In-between child’s play and teenage pop culture: tweens, TikTok & privacy. Journal of Youth Studies, 1-18.

Facer, K. (2012). After the moral panic? Reframing the debate about child safety online. Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of education, 33 (3), 397-413.

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia. (2021). Privacy Legislation Amendment (Enhancing Online Privacy and Other Measures) Bill 2021. Available from: https://consultations.ag.gov.au/rights-and-protections/online-privacy-bill-exposure-draft/user_uploads/online-privacy-bill-exposure-draft.pdf (accessed 26/04/2021)

Keen to read more? 

Our researchers and partners produce regular blog posts and research outputs focused on children and digital technology.