TikTok has reinvented the teenage bedroom

Snogging your hand in secret? Worshipping the posters of pop stars on your bedroom wall? All this has changed in the age of Tiktok.

by Emma Madden
05 May 2020, 4:00pm

Still from Juno.

On TikTok, love isn’t something to be discovered: it’s already been invented, a script written for us. Each night, teenagers broadcast step-by-step instructions on how to perform it from the theatre of their bedrooms. Guys? Wear a chain and dangle it over her. Girls? If you touch his hair and scratch his back, you’re getting wed -- sorry ‘bout it! Everyone, if you look down, then up, then smile at your crush, you’ll make them fall in love with you. The same tips are circulated in abundance each day, which makes us wonder: will generation TikTok all experience the same first kiss? Will the exact same pick-up lines be recycled for years to come? Will everyone still pretend to like being choked?

Where the teenage bedroom once provided a shield away from the public gaze, a space where young people could feel unjudged enough to develop their personality, desire and tastes, technology has turned our walls to glass. TikTok is continuing to alter the function of the teenager’s space, and more than ever, the private has become public. Instead of practicing kissing techniques on pillows, we turn to TikTok to form our development.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 17-year-old longboarder Dan seldom used to go on his phone before he downloaded TikTok. Now, stuck in his bedroom under lockdown due to coronavirus, the app has helped him connect to a world outside of his “messy little cave”. As a young gay man, it’s also helped him to see his place within that world, and to feel more empowered within it. “It’s taught me to be more confident with my body, to express the sheer power in loving what you look like,” he says. “I wouldn’t have learned that without the opportunity to express it on the platform.”

The significance of the teenage bedroom was first considered, in any substantial capacity, by Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber in their 1976 study ‘Girls and Subcultures.’ They argued that girls (who, at the time were more likely to stay inside, while boys played outside) developed a “culture of the bedroom” which coincided with their own physical and romantic development into adolescence. They experimented with makeup, read magazines, sized up the boys at school, and played music to soundtrack their private evolution. Creating an identity and learning romantic rituals was, and still is, at the core of adolescence. The teenage bedroom provided the only secure and isolated space in which that process could be carried out.

In the decades since their study, a teenager’s bedroom has become increasingly public. Music was one of the first infiltrations of the outside world into it, since it provided “a pathway out of the private sphere of the bedroom and into the public sphere of the city,” writes Sian Collins in Feeling the Noise: Teenagers, Bedrooms and Music. As it does today, recorded music changed the atmosphere of it too, and the records that teenagers back then chose to play in their room marked the beginning of their cultural histories, as musical genres dictated everything from the way teenagers dressed to who they wanted to kiss.

On TikTok, music quite literally transforms our bedrooms from a private into a public space. If you’re too young to go to raves, you can apply a crowd-like effect as you dance through a sea of hands, with "Real Raver" soundtracking the illusion. Even the process of developing a taste in music is no longer private. We regularly guide friends towards ‘the right’ kind of music (Tame Impala and Mac DeMarco, apparently) and steer them away from what’s considered ‘wrong’. “You have good taste in music if you listen to…” is a popular prompt for music lovers on TikTok to, more often than not, police others into loving The 1975 and the Arctic Monkeys.

Steph, who records her music-based takes with the handle @awgesteph thinks that “TikTok has somewhat influenced what I listen to”. It’s also changed her opinion on some of the music she grew up listening to, because other TikTok users have referred to it as “weird” or “trash”. Now, her music taste plays a big part in the way she’s come to form an identity. “I guess you could say I feel the need to ‘play the part’ in what I listen to, like the way I act and dress,” she says.

While the infiltration of the camcorder into households at the tail end of the 1980s shifted the function of the teenage bedroom, no technology has blurred the public and private spheres more than the internet. In many ways, it has become a substitute for the IRL teenage bedroom. If you came of age just a few years prior to now, during the era of LiveJournal or Tumblr’s heyday, you might have felt a sense of controlled ownership and safety; the kind the old, private model of the teenage bedroom once offered. On these platforms, that generation marked their transition from undeveloped, culturally intrigued tweens, to, well, Lana Del Rey stans. That generation built and exhibited their identities with blog posts on a timeline, like posters hanging on a wall.

On TikTok, however, the traditional teenage bedroom dissipates. Hours drip by and surroundings fade as we are locked into the long scroll of others broadcasting their desires, displaying their tastes, and mimicking -- while giving tips on how to -- touch.

The formation of identity is complex, and so it seems natural that teens (especially queer teens) want to learn from and participate in a culture where the rituals, rules and skills of romance and identity are taught. “TikTok is like being in contact with all these people you’ve never met but they all feel close to you,” says Dan, “It validates me and my identity, because now I know people connect with it.” Finally, teenagers are allowed to recognise that the world outside of their bedroom walls is spurring them on, so that they’re able to mature into themselves -- just with fewer growing pains.

Gen Z