On Jan. 26, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others died in a tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif. Hours later I saw a viral TikTok video of three kids mimicking the crash.

TikTok is a video sharing platform where users create video content edited with music or animations. Launched in 2017, TikTok took over a market left behind by the nostalgic app: Vine.

Vine was TikTok’s millennial-targeted prototype, but its content was nowhere near as crude or insensitive. Vine reflected its own era, and now TikTok shows us how the internet is changing after taking its reigns from Generation Y and handing them to Z.

But TikTok should not bear all the blame. According to their community guidelines, the company polices content that promotes hate, violence, sex, spam and any illegal activities. When illegal accounts surface, it may be due to the app’s boundless popularity. 

NPR radio host, Shannon Bond, said people downloaded TikTok 1.5 billion times in the 18 months following its release. She went on to say the majority of these users are teenagers and in their twenties. 

Although older users exist, the majority of TikTok videos I see on my feed are from teenagers and young people; even the one mocking Kobe Bryant. And based on others that creep into my feed, that video was just one among many.

One viral TikTok user mimicked a class of students watching The Boy in The Striped Pajamas. As the film ends, the class turns to the “German” kid and quotes rapper Lil Durk saying “he’d still be alive right now if you didn't gas him up.” 

Another video from an American user mimicked a war between the US and Iran. The user filmed himself pretending to shoot Iranian soldiers and then edited it to make it look like he was violating the dead soldiers.

These videos are not satire; they sum up a mainstream culture of Internet insensitivity unique to teens. But these young people also live in a world where insensitivity is normalized, and hate speech runs rampant online; especially via TikTok.

TikTok’s rapid rise to popularity forced users to share the platform with white supremacists and ISIS before the company could find and delete them.

In 2019, Georgia Wells, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, wrote a story about the Islamic State’s presence on TikTok. That year, the company removed videos of torture and executions edited with the app’s signature animations. 

Vulgar content lives on most platforms, but the new digital generation needs to learn that there’s a line between comedy and classlessness, and that it’s not hard to avoid. Encouraging a culture of digital literacy could change this.

According tocommonsensemedia.org, digital literacy should be taught so internet users can identify online messages and learn to think critically about the media they create and consume. In an increasingly digital world, where teenagers bump shoulders with ISIS, this practice is just as necessary as written literacy. Now, the discipline just needs to catch on.

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