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Teens step into the TikTok spotlight

Imagine being a teenager and the star of a TV show that airs on any given night of the week to an audience of thousands.

Once upon a time this description would have matched only the life of someone like a young actor in Hollywood, but that is not the case today. The internet and its social media platforms have opened up avenues for mass communication and entertainment that never existed before.

Today, the description of being a teenage star with an audience of thousands applies to at least three young people from Farmville and Buckingham who have developed significant followings on the video sharing social networking service known as TikTok.

TikTok is a trend-starting platform available on the web or mobile devices where viewers can watch and discover millions of personalized short videos. TikTok content creators can make videos lasting from 15 to 60 seconds across a variety of genres like dance, comedy and education, utilizing original audio or allowing a popular song or audio track to carry the sound of the video.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 6, 16-year-old Emma Bickford, of Buckingham, had 21,300 followers on TikTok; 16-year-old Cole Lefferts, also of Buckingham, had 33,000 followers; and 18-year-old Kaitlyn Morgan, of Farmville, had 346,900 followers.

Cole
Lefferts

Lefferts got his start with TikTok around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March after receiving some encouragement from his best friend, Mia Garrett.

“I have a friend that just makes TikToks for fun, and one day I decided that I wanted to make one too, and I got a few followers off of it,” he said.

It was a dance video with one of his friends and garnered him about 100 followers.

“So then I decided I wanted to make another one, and then it just kind of brought more followers, and I kind of just wanted to just make a few,” he said. “And I started to enjoy it a lot.”

Bickford, who got her start on TikTok around November 2019, said everybody was getting into it at Fuqua School, where she attended along with Morgan.

Emma
Bickford

“And I saw that Kaitlyn started blowing up, and so she just kind of started that for me, and then it just started me dancing and doing my little videos,” Bickford said.

Morgan said she first began to interact with TikTok in July 2019.

“I really didn’t know how it worked,” she said. “I just kind of watched everybody else’s videos, and then I started making videos with text and content, just kind of making jokes at things. One of my videos took off, and it just kind of blew up from there.”

She said her first video to go viral came in her first month on the platform.

Morgan, Bickford and Lefferts all indicated that part of what has kept them coming back to TikTok has been a love for watching the content that comes from other creators.

Lefferts noted people do random stuff in their videos.

“I just kind of enjoy watching it, and I’ll be watching it and then I’ll see somebody do something, and I’m like, ‘Hey, I want to do that,’” he said.

Bickford said TikTok’s content is just entertaining to her.

“So when I’m laying in bed, I watch TikTok, or when I have nothing to do in between classes, I’m watching TikTok because it’s just videos, it’s stuff that I relate to or other people relate to and just funny stuff to brighten your day,” she said.

For Lefferts and especially Morgan, the platform has also become a benefit to them financially.

Kaitlyn
Morgan

“I work with a bunch of companies through paid promotions, so TikTok’s basically become my source of income right now, especially with me being in college,” Morgan said. “So making videos is basically just how I grow my business that I found for myself through social media.

“So these companies reach out to me — or I can reach out to them — and set how much I get paid per post, and I can get paid for using different artists’ sounds,” she added.

Morgan said she linked a business email to her TikTok account when she first gained a few thousand followers.

“And then I started getting inquiries from different companies, and so then I found out that I can also start reaching out to them too,” she said.

Sometimes Morgan will make a video specifically to highlight a product or products for one of the companies with which she has a relationship.

Promotion of products can come in more subtle ways as well. Lefferts asked Old South Apparel, a clothing company, if he could be an ambassador for them, telling them how many followers he had, and they said they would love to have his help.

Lefferts said that in most every video he makes, he will include a hashtag or reference to Old South, and he also lists a promotional discount code.

“You have to be 18 to get the creator fund, which is getting money off your views, but I make a little bit of money from Old South, because they give you 5% commission for everybody that uses your code,” Lefferts said.

He said he would love to be an ambassador for more companies, adding that he just needs to grow his TikTok channel a little more.

Bickford said she has not begun to make money off TikTok but might do so in the future.

Morgan said she has contracts with around 10 companies right now, which represents a middle ground for her as things are a bit slow due to the novel coronavirus. She explained how the TikToker-company relationship works.

“With the majority of the companies I work with, I do have to sign a contract, which they’ll state how many times I should post for a product or if it’s just a one-time thing, so it differs,” she said.

She stated she tries to work with brands that she knows provide products she would use.

A few of the companies currently include Novashine, a teeth-whitening business; Loving Tan, self-tanner company; Princess Polly, a clothing company; and TTDEye, a colored contact lens company.

She said the income has been fairly decent.

“For being a college student that doesn’t have time to work, when I get those companies who email me every month, every week, I know that that’s a source of income I’m going to have coming in,” she said. “It’s allowed me to help pay for textbooks, groceries, so yeah, I’d say it’s pretty decent.”

Morgan, Bickford and Lefferts have all produced videos of themselves dancing to popular songs. Bickford said sometimes the dance moves will mimic what someone from an account with millions of followers started, and a dance credit is listed.

“I really like to make a wide variety of videos, but I’ve noticed that the more popular videos I make are usually (based) around things that happened in my life or comedic things I come up with, so I try to focus on those,” Morgan said.

Her most-watched video, drawing 2.3 million views so far, was from Halloween night while attending college at Coastal Carolina University with her roommate.

“It was just a video of us talking about a bucket of nuggets we got from Auntie Anne’s (Pretzels),” she said. “Yeah, it was really unexpected.”

Being on TikTok has in some cases allowed for interactions with famous people, like musicians.

Morgan said her favorite songwriter, Thomas Mack, has more than 1 million followers.

“He actually followed me back, and (direct messaged) DMed me and was talking to me just about his music and how he likes my videos, so that was really cool to me,” she said.

She said she also received a follow back from Aaron Doh, a content creator from an old video app called Vine with more than 5 million followers.

Luke Combs, a country music singer and songwriter, once commented on a TikTok video that Bickford made.

“I was just freaking out. I didn’t know what to do, because I felt like somebody that everybody fantasizes over, that everybody’s obsessed with, commented on my TikTok, out of everybody else’s he could have commented on,” Bickford said.

Asked what it is like knowing that more than 340,000 people are interested in knowing what she is going to come up with next on TikTok, Morgan said it is crazy.

“I love it so much, though — wouldn’t change it for a day,” she said. “Just thinking about all those people looking at me at first was a little freaky, but I wouldn’t change it. It’s been a great experience, and I’m loving it.”

Lefferts said he enjoys the opportunities the platform offers for meeting different people from other places.

The biggest highlight to his TikTok experience thus far has been getting recognized sometimes when he is out and about.

“It’s very rare, because I don’t have as many (followers) as a lot of people, but it’s happened before,” he said. “I think that’s pretty cool.”

Morgan said the biggest highlight for her thus far has been seeing the positive impact she has had on others.

“I try to post positive content because I want to uplift people, and I also like to use my platform to kind of comment on other people’s posts if I see they’re having a hard time,” she said. “So sometimes I’ll get DMs from people just wanting to reach out and talk or people saying I really helped them with something.”

Bickford said her personal highlight has been becoming a role model to some people, including two young girls in Buckingham, Jazmyn Mona Gibson-Austin and Cali Brooke Fitzgerald.

“I went and did school with them one day,” Bickford said. “I’ve made TikToks with them because they just think that I’m the greatest thing ever. So I think probably having those two little girls look up to me so much and think that I’m this big role model in their life and just being that type of person for those two little girls, I think that’s probably been the highlight of TikTok for me.”