Why are teenagers acting out traumatic historical events on TikTok?

Users are pretending to be victims of historical tragedies.
Users are pretending to be victims of historical tragedies. Photo credit: TikTok

A disturbing trend on TikTok is spurring young people to recreate tragic historical events such as the Holocaust, 9/11 and the sinking of the Titanic - by pretending to be their dead victims. 

The trend, which has drawn heavy criticism both online and in expert analysis, sees teenagers and young adults wearing stage makeup which is supposed to mimic injuries. 

The videos are dubbed over with captions which often revolve around the person having died and gone to heaven where they explain how they died to the viewer. 

Some teens even pretend to be victims of domestic abuse, or serial killers. As disturbing as they are, the videos rate highly within the app, sometimes receiving hundreds of thousands of views.

But why is it that these videos are so popular?

Karen Kovacs North, a clinical professor of communication, is a recognised expert in social media and psychology.

She spoke to Insider about some of the potential reasons teens might want to create content like this, saying it could boil down to a culture of participation which means they want to learn by doing rather than watching.

"TikTok is built for participation, so when you see someone doing something and they do it well, everyone else is encouraged to do their own unique version of it even if their version of it is completely lacking in talent and quality."

But North says it goes deeper than that too - in 2020 social awareness is key. She hypothesizes that a growing global culture of social justice could be inspiring people to want to inform others - no matter how misguided it is.

"There's a real hunger to make statements, protest, and build awareness… it's still surprising that people do this, but it's not surprising that people would act out something horrifying on TikTok because they're drawn to it."

Some users have explained their videos as wanting to create awareness, or educate people on historical or social events. But North says this alone is not enough as it does not do enough to understand the atrocities which took place.

"They are flat-out hurtful to an individual or a group because they're interested in a topic where they do not understand the gravity of the situation."

It's a view shared by the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, whose chief executive told Newshub he feels "disgusted" by the content which centres around the Nazi genocide of Jewish people.

"For young people to think that dressing up and applying make-up gives them an understanding of what happened is totally unacceptable - these were real victims - people who suffered the worst that humanity could throw at them," Chris Harris said. 

"As much as TikTok was trying to create an awareness, I think that this has not worked, it is insensitive and makes fun of the Holocaust."