You might think kids just use TikTok to waste time watching cat videos and doing silly dances.
But they’re actually using it to learn about the world and form opinions — because TikTok is the new Google for Gen Z.
According to a new report from Search Engine Journal, 64% of those 27 and under are using TikTok as a search tool.
Rather than turn to Google — or a book — to ask a question or look for a recommendation, TikTok users are seeking out influencers and video creators on a foreign-owned app for answers on everything from medical advice to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
TikTok is quickly becoming Gen Z’s new portal to the rest of the internet.
A separate survey from Her Campus Media found that the top reasons Zoomers are ditching Google include a preference for video format, more relatable content and personalized answers.
Search engines compile information and answer queries, but while Google allows you to browse pages of options, TikTok serves a stream of videos, sucking users right into whatever content they’re fed.
And the results on TikTok are unreliable at best and dangerous at worst.
A Zoomer searching for healthy eating tips might get pulled down a rabbit hole of fad diets and eating disorder content.
A search for “weight loss tips” yields crash diets promising you can lose 20 pounds in a week and influencers sharing their 1,000-calorie-a-day diets.
And a search for “water fasting” will show you gleeful TikTokers bragging about being on their fifth day without food.
Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicology physician at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, says she frequently encounters patients who search TikTok for medical advice and quick cures.
“It’s more common than many people may think,” she warned. “But influencers aren’t usually experts. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are an expert in something just because they have a fancy looking profile and a million followers on TikTok.
“When it comes to misinformation within the context of medical advice, misinformation isn’t just incorrect — it may actually be harmful.”
She’s right. A quick search for “castor oil,” which is touted for homeopathic qualities, will show videos claiming it can break up tumors. And searches for “UTI treatments” will bring up self-professed experts claiming you don’t need to see a doctor while pushing natural remedies over antibiotics.
Dr. Johnson-Arbor has seen a variety of concerning trends take off — from people bathing in Borax to inhaling toxic fumes after combining cleaning products recommended by TikTok to clean their toilet bowls.
In fact, if you search “cleansing tips,” you’ll find TikTokers showing off their Borax-filled bathtubs and explaining how they mix it into their drinking water.
One viral challenge that shows up in search results for “cleansing tips” is called the “internal shower,” which involves drinking water mixed with chia seeds for laxative effects. But Dr. Johnson-Arbor says it has actually caused gastrointestinal obstructions in some patients.
But it’s not just users’ physical health that can impacted. There’s also potential for psychological influence as TikTok — and, by proxy, China — usurps the role of Google in Zoomers’ lives.
We already know how much of an sway TikTok has on young people, and they admit as much. The hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt has 87 billion views.
A TikTok craze for Stanley water bottles even caused stampedes in Target stores as desperate TikTokers clamored for limited edition releases, and later took to the app to post about their new acquisitions.
If TikTok can make you buy something, who’s to say it can’t make you think something too?
It’s bad enough that we’ve handed over young Americans’ time and attention to an app that’s potentially influenced by China — but we’re also now allowing that app to influence what new ideas and information kids are getting online.
Although TikTok denies Chinese influence, lawmakers and security advisors alike are skeptical. And, because TikTok and its algorithm is a black box, it’s impossible to know just how influenced it is by the CCP.
Heinous ideologies go viral thanks to TikTok. Osama bin Laden’s Letter to America, for instance, went viral this fall, with Zoomers appallingly celebrating the terrorist.
Searching “Israel” on TikTok will yield videos of influencers suggesting the nation shouldn’t exist and describing it as a “theocratic ethnostate.”
Look up “capitalism,” and you’ll find Marxist TikTokers dubbing it “the problem” and calling for abolition.
This sort of rhetoric is devastating to our social fabric, and no doubt China is taking note. Although TikTok denies it, it’s hard to imagine the CCP isn’t exercising influence over what young people see in their search results.
A search for “Xi Jinping,” for instance, brought up videos of the Chinese president set to celebratory music, with comment calling him “an amazing politician.”
“He is the best president but unfortunately the western media makes bad things about him,” one commenter added.
Nicolas Chaillan, cybersecurity expert and the former Air Force and Space Force chief software officer, says TikTok was “built from the get go by design” to be used as a search engine and therefore to “built to expand their control around access to information in Europeans and American countries.
“This is very scary as this is becoming a great opportunity for the CCP to curate what those users get to see and completely control information or disinformation,” he told The Post. “Not to mention they can potentially sway the 2024 election.”
NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway agrees.
“If I were a member of the CCP and I saw that we had a vested interest in diminishing America’s standing strategically in the world … I would just take my thumb and very elegantly and insidiously put it on the scale of content that reflects America in a bad light,” he warned on the Modern Wisdom podcast.
“I think that they’re doing this right now — they’d be stupid not to do it.”
We simply can’t afford to hand over the reigns of the internet to a hostile foreign nation, especially since contentious social and political issues are popular search topics: #BLM has 43 billion views, #Israel has 46 billion, #Palestine 57 billion, #Biden 32 billion and #Trump 54 billion.
But stopping this trend requires education.
It’s clear that kids today need help navigating the internet and making wise decisions. Using a foreign-owned video app to learn about the world certainly isn’t wise.
It’s time for parents and educators to step in and teach internet literacy. The web isn’t going anywhere, and learning how to interact with platforms and information responsibly is essential to healthy digital citizenship.
Some states are trying to help.
New York’s Education Department requires that schools educate minors about appropriate online behavior, and four states — California, New Jersey, Delaware and Texas — require media literacy for all students.
But online safety and media literacy in isolation only go halfway.
In the virtual age, students need to be taught internet literacy — how to interact with platforms, evaluate whether there may be foreign interference or political bias in content they are consuming, and become responsible citizens of the internet.
There’s no putting the digital toothpaste back into the tube. Kids growing up today will need to navigate their lives and careers online, with social media and artificial intelligence looming.
If they can’t figure out that TikTok is a sinister search engine, then how can they succeed in an online world?