If you have a kid old enough to be watching TikTok, but still young enough to enjoy slime videos, check in on them every once in a while. Storytime TikTok content creators will tell weird, outrageous stories over innocuous videos, and with headphones in, parents would have no idea. While not often NSFW, they are often just kind of… mean, and usually feature a conflict in which the storyteller is completely, 100% in the right, and the other person is comically evil or wrong.
However, TikTok is a highly visual app, so you can’t just tell these stories by themselves – you have to make visible content to go alongside it. This would be less of an issue if these tutorials or play videos were less kid friendly, but it’s frequently extremely child-oriented: it’s slime tutorials, toys with a lot of moving parts to assemble, tumblers with glitter on them, soap making, etc.
The separation between the age range of the toys on-screen and the age range for the story being told over it is usually inappropriately large. Think “telling my 13-year-old cousin about what a b**** her great aunt was at my wedding” large.
While I don’t believe the more Elsa-Gatey conspiracies about these stories (that they’re subliminally messaging things to sew discord into American families, or conditioning kids to be quiet and compliant during a kidnapping, seriously Elsa-Gate was wild) I do believe they hit all of the cheap reward outrage centers in the brain on purpose to keep viewers coming back, kid or adult, to improve the watchtimes on their channel. Kids, who have much less experience with truth-stretching, are more susceptible by default.
Supporting the watchtime theory is that the channels’s stories need to be broken up into separate parts because the story is usually unnecessarily, overly detailed, and can’t be told in one minute (TikTok’s old video length limit). People don’t like leaving things hanging, so if the story catches their attention, they’ll go to the account and keep watching. Pay attention to how these videos open, when you see them – the first line in any of these videos is usually pretty dramatic and attention-grabbing even if the story goes nowhere. They can squeeze 5 or 6 videos of watchtime out of a viewer by doing this. Once again, people don’t like leaving things hanging, so if the ending of that story was unsatisfactory or didn’t resolve what the watcher thought it would, they will continue scrolling and listening. Perhaps indefinitely.
The goal is to create emotional investment, to get you, the listener, to sympathise with the storyteller so hard that you must know what happens next in this completely insane chain of events being told to you.
The Concept of “Chronically Online”
The concept of being ‘chronically online’ sprung up some time after people got sick of the weird social theory stuff with no ground in reality happening on social media. There are stories about things you will never see replicated IRL – subreddits like R/ThatHappened (and a host of others for more specific niches) demonstrate exactly the sort of thing you see read off in these TikToks. Stories where, for example, the original poster puts down their name as “Leia Organa” at Starbucks, and everybody claps and makes Star Wars references when the barista calls out the name on the cup. Or, a strawman douchebag says something so obviously wrong about the original poster (usually noticing a pin or something on their clothing) that the entire coffee shop starts berating said strawman for being a douchebag.
You can understand how a teen or tween would desperately crave the attention and acceptance of strangers around them and want to believe these stories really happened, so they keep listening – if they’re really awkward (or again, chronically online) they may try to initiate these weird anecdotes in public. Look at the TikTok of the girl who put down “single and available” as her name. Notice the reactions of the people inside as she repeats, over and over, that she is available. It is not the chuckles and raised eyebrows that she may have been expecting.
Being ‘chronically online’ is not good for socializing off the web.
People who are chronically online end up saying things that would only be okay in the anonymous environment of a Discord server, or doing things that weird others around them out even though people found it funny or cool online. In the same way you wouldn’t talk to your mother like you would talk to your friends (even if only because she doesn’t get the same references your friends do), you wouldn’t want to behave offline the same way you do online, because they’re two entirely different spaces with entirely different modes of communication.
These weird stories throw more fuel on the fire, confusing fictional scripts (or heavy exaggeration) with real life. Stuff that people just don’t do is treated as fact by the storyteller. They build character tropes like some screwed up, misanthropic mad-lib game – the Mother in Law is poisoning the storyteller. The Boyfriend is cheating. The Customer is too stupid to know what they ordered. The Man At The Bar is shouting expletives at the original storyteller and threatens them with bodily harm, and nobody intervenes. These are abnormal, unusual stories if they even happened at all (which they might not have), and they’re being sold as commonplace! Of course, that’s why they’re ‘interesting’ – listeners likely don’t have any experience being poisoned and want to know what happened next – but it also builds subconscious patterns that show up in unhealthy ways offline.
Think about it: did you ever see a horror movie that made you cautious about things you don’t normally care about? Maybe Stephen King’s Pet Sematary made you look under the car before you got in for a minute. Maybe you had trouble sleeping after seeing Friday the 13th. These stories are creating the same response, where suspicion or ‘scripting’ leads over personal instinct in a social interaction because it’s replacing the natural patterning the kid has learned IRL, from people they knew. Friends who shared rumors, adults who shared memories, teachers who shared anecdotes… stuff that they kept realistic because they could be held accountable for lying, generally. Movies like Mean Girls could be tempered with real-life expectations from an older sibling or friend. Now, anyone can tell them anything, and because they’re often inexperienced in real life matters like marriage and customer service, they may just accept it without question until something directly challenges what they ‘learned’ from those stories.
Tune in – clarify that people on the internet have good motivation to lie.