Sarah Daly’s young daughter does a pretty good Miss Piggy impersonation. She knows because the third-grader will regularly sing “Let me do it for you” in the Muppet’s famous voice around the house, mimicking a viral TikTok sound.
It’s just one of the many popular TikTok sayings, songs and dances the 8-year-old sprinkles into conversations, despite not actually having a TikTok account herself. Often, she doesn’t even know where they’re from.
“The awful corn song was in our house for a long time. The Wellermen with the sea shanties — that took a whole portion of my life,” Daly said. “And she likes to do a lot of the phrases and sayings like ‘I’m just a baby!’”
Kids too young to sign up for a TikTok account are adopting and spreading some of the video app’s most popular sound bites in daily conversations, often to the surprise or confusion of the adults in their lives. What starts out online is organically making its way through siblings and friends to the playgrounds, joining the other chants and hand games kids have shared with one another for decades. The speedy spread of online memes to the real world is the latest example of how lines between online and offline cultures are disappearing.
To adults who are not on TikTok, hearing the memes can be alarming, like when a child enthusiastically sings “Dumb ways to die” — a song from an Australian train safety campaign currently being played on TikToks of people doing ill-advised things (but not actually dying). To those who are fluent in the latest internet trends, it can be something to bond over or use in class. Sometimes the adults in these kids’ lives are on TikTok themselves, posting their own videos to large followings.
Current trends, according to parents, teachers and children we asked, include saying, “Oh no, our table, it’s broken!,” singing, “Oh no, oh no, oh no no no no no,” and shouting “emotional damage!”
TikTok’s short videos are designed to be earworms, and the sounds themselves are often what get reused, remixed and spread on the app with different visuals. They are also frequently silly, catchy and short — catnip for kids.
“The second a kid says a little phrase or a line from something, I will know what they mean. I’ve seen the app enough I can say, oh that’s from TikTok,” said Mike, a second-grade teacher in Boston who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used so his school doesn’t find his account. “We can talk about it or joke about it or turn it into a learning moment.”
While he enjoys the shared cultural references, he said he is worried about how much access his students seem to have to technology. “I just wish they were able to go outside and play with each other a little more.”
Some other teachers shared his reservations about younger kids and screen time, even though they don’t think they’re on TikTok. TikTok itself recently responded to concerns about older kids being on the app too much by automatically limiting people under 18 to one hour a day, though they can turn off the setting.
You have to be 13 to start a TikTok account, but the age is self-reported, and many younger kids have unfettered access on their own devices or their parents’. According to Pew Research, TikTok has surged in popularity to become the second-most-used social network for teens 13 to 17, though YouTube is still the most widely used.
Viral videos are usually cross-posted between video sites, so a TikTok-famous dance might end up on YouTube, Snapchat or eventually Instagram Reels. Many memes can get their start on other sites, like YouTube or Twitter, or are pulled from much older content. (The “Oh no” sound is from a 1964 song by the Shangri-Las; the broken table is from America’s Funniest Home Videos.)
Not all the online memes elementary kids pick up are from TikTok; many are straight from YouTube or video games.
“There is a YouTube meme ‘Big Chungus’; it’s like a chunky version of Bugs Bunny. That’s about where my students’ humor lies,” said Jennifer Blossey, a third-grade teacher in Michigan. “They name everything ‘Big Chungus.’ Logging into a computer program, and it asks for their name? It’s now Big Chungus.”
Some elementary school teachers said that while a few children in their grades might have access to technology, the majority aren’t getting memes from the apps themselves. Instead, they’re hearing it from older siblings or relatives who are online and then passing it between friends. The parents we spoke to who do let their children watch TikTok stick to looking up specific animals together.
“I think they are absorbing these ideas and phrases more socially than visually. I’m sure more than half of my students have said ‘emotional damage’ to another student, either in context or not, without having any idea where it originated,” Blossey said, referring to viral audio of, well, a guy yelling “emotional damage.”
The use of memes predates the internet, experts say.
“Memes have been around since the beginning of human kind; we see things, and we replicated it. Some of it is a form of social learning, but some of it is culture, too,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies memes. “It may be illustrating that we’re no longer focused culturally on the big mainstream media sitcoms or the movies to generate our cultural idiosyncrasies. It can be something like an influencer on YouTube or TikTok.”
Children have always woven the latest things happening around them into playground rhymes and songs, according to professor John Potter, who studies media education and play at University College London. Hand-clapping games have been around forever, but the songs themselves adapt and change to include cultural touchstones from TV shows to mentions of WiFi and Bluetooth, he said.
“It gives them some kind of status to be able to introduce a new thing into the playground or something that they think will be current, that they can communicate with their friends about. And it’s always been the way,” Potter said. “I think it builds community, it builds knowing, it builds opportunities to play.”
Not all viral memes are positive. There have been reports of TikTok challenges asking students to pull pranks that end up destroying bathrooms or other school property.
“Those things do happen, and it becomes easy to blame the technology, blame the app in a really kind of simplistic way,” said Ryan Milner, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who studies internet culture. “I think we have to be aware as parents about the media that our kids are consuming, especially in less vetted places like TikTok and YouTube, but also acknowledge that the stuff happening on those sites is a mix of good and bad, like human expression is a mix of good and bad.”
Parents worried or confused about sayings their kids have picked up can look them up on a site like Know Your Meme or type it straight into YouTube or TikTok. They can try asking their children, but even if kids do know the origin, explaining a meme is often borderline impossible. (The “Let me do it for you” sound is from a recording of a man imitating Miss Piggy covering an FKA twigs lyric that was posted on Instagram and then made it to Twitter before spreading on TikTok over videos of Borzoi dogs.)
As for Daly, she usually watches TikToks on her own but will also snuggle up with her daughter to watch some together. “We’ll watch goat TikToks, something I know won’t have curse words.”