If you have a teen in your life, you know that TikTok is the platform du jour for them to create and share inexplicable, absurd and often downright hilarious pieces of content.
However, among the memes and Dadaist humor of TikTok run a savage streak of political activism.
The teens of TikTok have taken on wealth inequality, climate change and the mercurial attentions of a slacktivist public.
Now, with a series of brutal, darkly funny memes, they’ve turned a narrowed eye toward school shootings. It’s hilarious and horrifying at the same time. And it reflects the frustration and anxiety of a generation shaped by gun violence.
It’s a different kind of expression
TikTok has 500 million active users across the globe who create and watch billions of short musical clips that span every possible type of theme and content. The clips are usually short – 15 seconds or less – and are typically set to music. Users are encouraged to participate in challenges and add their own spin to a particular theme, dance or song.
In some corners of TikTok, there’s flirtatious lip-synching, sophomoric pranks, confessionals and in some cases – such as Lil Nas X, whose star first rose after his song “Old Town Road” was featured on the app – the possibility of fame.
On the other end of the TikTok spectrum, creators have started using the platform to make wry jokes about living with a low-burning fear of gun violence.
Take a series of videos that started getting attention on the app when the school year began. In one, an American student excitedly packs his bags as the caption reads he’s moving to Canada. The chorus of La Roux’s 2009 hit “Bulletproof” plays over top: “This time baby, I’ll be bulletproof.”
In another, a US student and a UK student are shown in side-by-side scenarios listening to M.I.A’s “Paper Planes.” As the gunshots of the refrain ring out, the US student looks around, panicked, while the UK student remains unbothered.
You don’t need to be steeped in internet memery to get the message.
“I think kids are doing it because they want to make a joke out of how [people] are trying to find solutions that are [off the cuff],” says Ethan Druck, a 16-year-old from Garland, Texas.
He made a TikTok showing off his school ID badge, with the “Bulletproof” song playing over top. Ethan says his school asked students to wear badges on lanyards, prominently displayed, to increase security. By filtering the concept through TikTok satire, he wanted to show that administrators, though well-intentioned, implement strategies that don’t seem like they help the issue.
“This is a generation where [we see] major issues have turned into a joke,” he says. “I think it’s a lot of teens [who are] kind of seeing that this is a major issue, and they do fear the results. But they don’t really know how to express that.”
Levity is often a much-needed balm
Parts of this equation feel extremely on-brand for Gen Z, a generation of teens and young adults marked by heavy irony and an increasing tendency toward political and social activism.
What isn’t new is the idea that sometimes, in the face of frustration, hopelessness and tragedy, levity can be a much-needed balm.
“People have really different reactions to humor as a coping strategy, but humor can be a really healthy form of coping,” says Laura Wilson, an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
“After trauma, what a lot of people struggle with is vulnerability, and by making a joke or video about it, they think, ‘I’m taking control of this.’”
While we usually think of trauma in direct relation to an event, young people who see tragedies unfold from afar can go through a type of trauma, too. This generation, Wilson says, may have a particularly acute perception of mortality and danger.
“I do feel this generation has a familiarity with death that other generations didn’t,” she says. “They see people of their age fleeing schools, crying, hearing about people killed, and I don’t think that there was something exactly like that in past generations.”
It’s a fine line between satire and offense
The videos CNN reviewed for this article appeared to be made not to poke fun or derive humor from tragedy, but rather to comment on the effect of mass shootings on school policies and student psyche. The TikTok creators CNN spoke to also maintained this message. However, just because something is made to underscore a point or indulge in some gallows humor doesn’t mean it can’t hurt.
Phoebe O’Mara was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas when a shooter took the lives of 17 students and staff in February last year. O’Mara, 16, says some of the TikToks she’s seen are hard to watch.
“It upset me at first to see that people were making jokes about school shootings and commenting on these videos about how funny the situation and humor is,” she says. “But I can’t be upset at people for making humor out of a situation that they were not directly affected by.”
Other videos, she says, are actually kind of depressing.
“[It’s sad] that teens in America are making jokes about their school safety system.”
O’Mara was among the group of MSD students that traveled to Tallahassee in the days following the shooting to talk to politicians about pursuing gun legislation changes. On the first anniversary of the shooting, she sought to break through the sadness of the day by celebrating love and focus on fond memories of the victims. That mindset, of choosing agency over hopelessness, has helped her deal with the troubling things she encounters online.
“Not everyone is going to be mindful of others’ emotions on the internet,” she says. “Someone is going to be offended or triggered but it’s how you react to it that shows your strength and resilience.”
It’s a new form of political commentary
Around the time of the Parkland shooting last year, it became apparent that some Americans were losing patience with the old ways of reacting to school shootings. For months following the attack, high school students around the country mobilized to call for more meaningful ways to address gun violence. As the conversations continued, well-worn phrases like “Thoughts and prayers” and “Let’s not politicize a tragedy” lost their meaning and became subject to ridicule and parody.
In a way, these TikTok memes follow along in the same vein.
“My sense is that a lot of young people are posting dark humor social media stuff because they’re fed up,” Wilson says. “They’re frustrated. They see that there are adults in the world that could potentially reduce the frequency of mass shootings or counteracting climate change, but they’re not.”
To these bizarre, funny, creative TikTok teens, the joke isn’t that school shootings happen. It’s that nothing meaningful is being done to make them stop.