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TikTok, Pastoral Care and Lockdown Britain

23 Oct 2020

In this blog, Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts—a member of our Ethical Futures network—offers a positive story about digital technology, reflecting on the recent trend for an innovative form of pastoral care.

In March 2020, Britain was put under a strict lockdown, limiting how much people could interact outside of their homes. I needed something to make me feel better, so I downloaded TikTok.

TikTok is a video sharing app, where creators make short videos—usually lip-synching to songs, audio clips from TV or sounds provided by other creators. The most famous uses of TikTok are perhaps teenagers dancing along to a song or cute animal videos. But what I did not expect was the number of creators on the app using their skills and platform to provide emotional, pastoral and spiritual support in ways which subvert typical methods of pastoral care.

On the surface of it, digital pastoral care is quite straightforward. It denotes pastoral care that uses digital tools and resources to facilitate care. It can range from mundane tasks, like organising meetings over email, to using videoconferencing software to simulate one-to-one pastoral encounters. But TikTok offers the possibility of a different kind of digital pastoral care, detached from its typically dialogical format.

In May, BBC’s Newsround shared several TikToks (short videos shared on the app) created by teachers and dance professionals under the hashtag #helpingpeople. These videos were designed to help people with the isolation and boredom of lockdown by teaching then dance routines, helping them with their maths skills and building a virtual community to celebrate Ramadan.

I decided to investigate how TikTok was helping people with their pastoral and spiritual wellbeing, by exploring the Peace Train trend. Here, creators share videos which share the same calming background music and actively create a pastoral space for viewers to rest, share and encourage one another. These videos can run for as long as the viewer wishes and they are invited to interact through commenting on the video or just taking a moment to reflect with the video playing in the background; with the creator, their pet or a calming view offering them a sense of presence in that moment.

These ‘rest stop’ videos position themselves as a sort of pastoral palate cleanser for viewers, encouraging them to stop scrolling for a while. Additionally, some videos encourage viewers to avoid comparing their lives to those of other creators, or to rest from a constant stream of potentially loud and brightly coloured content. This demonstrates a kind of pastoral care that is mindful of the pastoral needs generated by the use of the app itself. This corresponds with the kind of pastoral care that Angela Gorrell describes, where spiritual care providers attend to the positive and negative experiences that people have online, as well as those they experience outside of social media.

Alongside these space-creating videos, some creators also make content which discusses pastoral issues head on. Here, creators talk directly to the camera, discussing issues like trauma, being overwhelmed or self-esteem and offering (usually non-religious) reflections on these issues.

Equally, some creators offer spiritual reflections which can help to enrich people’s spiritual lives and develop their relationships with God, themselves and the world. Pastor Kevin Wilson, a Youth Minister at Oceanside Seventh-Day Adventist Church, has been declared the CEO of Chai and shares spiritual reflection from his platform alongside videos encouraging viewers to make the best chai.

In a recent interview he says:

“My goal has always been to inject meaning and serotonin into your day with my love for a good cup of chai… [But] it’s not just about chai… There’s more to life than what people can see, touch and feel. I hone in on the idea of meaning. The more you talk about meaning, the more touch points you have that allow you to have an interfaith conversation.”

Together, these videos highlight a new way of doing pastoral care. Through TikTok, people are able to access a kind of pastoral care that is innovative and unique, and totally different to the traditional ways of doing pastoral care that they might otherwise encounter in church. These videos are necessarily one-sided, with creators making videos without knowing who will watch them, and viewers watching them at a distance from the creator. However, this doesn’t necessarily make the care offered any less effective. Instead, it demonstrates the power of digital technology to dislocate pastoral care from physical and temporal space, and from church hierarchies and boundaries. This pastoral care is gentle, individual and diverse, with anyone being able to make and view these videos and benefit from the care being offered there.

If you want to find out more about TikTok pastoral care, a thread of similar videos can be found here.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Behind the mask: uncovering symbols of hope in uncertain times by Matthew Barber-Rowell

Review of ‘What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing’ by Ed Finn by John Reader

Reflecting on emotions as the music returns by Ben Thompson

Is XR undergoing a just transition? by Matthew Stemp

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