Shaaf Iqbal was enjoying his freshman year at MU. The 18-year-old said he was getting good grades, having fun and was in the process of joining a fraternity.
The Tik Tok he created says it all:
Like Jack Harlow says in his song "WHATS POPPIN," Iqbal will be spending "this holiday locked in".
Like many students, his in-person classes were cut short due to the pandemic, and he is back home with his family in Huntley, Illinois. He says the effects of COVID-19 on the university took him by surprise.
"At first I was like, 'Oh you know it's not a big deal,'" Iqbal says. "And then you start seeing it in the U.S.... and then you realize, 'Oh you know, my freshman year is gone.'"
With in-person classes, clubs and activities canceled, many teens and young adults are finding themselves with too much time on their hands.
Some, like Iqbal, are turning to the Tik Tok app to keep them busy. Tik Tok is an app where people can create videos, usually of dancing or of memes, using music or other audio in the background.
"Mainly I watch videos to pass the time," Iqbal says. "If I'm really looking for something to do, sometimes I'll make videos."
Like many in his generation, he's hooked.
"It gets pretty addicting, not gonna lie," he says.
Staying entertained and connected online through apps like this is not a bad thing, according to Dr. Julius Riles. Riles is an assistant communication professor at MU, and one of his specialties is health and crisis communication.
"If this kind of pandemic had occurred just 20 to 30 years ago, it would have been catastrophic," Riles says.
Riles says technology is playing a crucial role in helping people stay connected.
"It would have been catastrophic in terms of isolation," Riles says. "Yes, we are isolated but less so than we might have been in the past."
Social media and apps like Skype and Zoom help people feel like they aren't alone. Riles says that one of the ways humans deal with feeling alone during a crisis like this is distracting themselves.
"This could be through using media, this could be through just finding diversionary activities, so that you're not thinking about that thing that's threatening your mortality, or even the mortality of loved ones," Riles says.
For Alexis Seals, Tik Tok is a way to do that through dancing.
So, my colleges has switched to online classes for the remainder of the semester, which means...Welcome to my new source of fun🙃♬ Why Is Everything Chrome (Lean Swag Rock Wit It) - King Critical
The 18-year-old MU freshman says many people use the app to stay entertained and cope with the pandemic, even if they do so jokingly.
"I think they're just coping with it the best way they can without even realizing it," Seals says. "Making jokes about it, kind of, you know, helps bring attention to it in some way."
But there are pros and cons to joking about the pandemic. Riles says apps like Tik Tok are great for keeping people connected, but they can also contribute to misinformation. He says Tik Tok users should be careful about the media they consume.
"They might miss out on important information or live in a, you know, quote-unquote echo chamber, where they are constantly hearing misinformation," Riles says.
Iqbal agrees that there may be some misinformation, but says some users just don't take the pandemic seriously. He says since most Tik Tok users are younger than college students, they think the virus will not hurt them as much as it will the elderly population.
"They kind of just are very misinformed about it. And they just make jokes about it," Iqbal says.
Iqbal says he understands why people make jokes, but people need to take the situation seriously.
"It's okay to like, try to make such a depressing situation uplifting," Iqbal says. "But there are times when I think we should definitely be more serious about it."
According to Seals, there's some good information spreading on Tik Tok too, like teaching people how to properly wash their hands.
"I have seen Tik Toks with people bringing awareness to it," Seals says. "I've seen Tik Toks of people like making fun ways to help prevent it, and kind of to help people be more aware of the situation."
In addition, the Tik Tok app adds a banner that reads "Learn the facts about COVID-19" to content that uses hashtags related to coronavirus. This page leads to videos made by the World Health organization and other organizations with vetted information about coronavirus, hand washing and social distancing.
Riles says that staying connected during this time on apps like Tik Tok can really help people not feel isolated.
"In terms of seeking out that human connection and social connection with others in a way that isn't threatening to yourself and your loved ones, it's really the best that we have," Riles says. "I do think that the ability of this modern technology has had a hugely positive impact."