Dan McFarland, 59, walked into his Louisville, Kentucky, home's kitchen and greeted his sons. They were all wearing matching powder blue sweat suits. Then, they broke into dance.
It sounds like an overthetop scene in a musical, but for McFarland and his family, things like this come with a shrug. It's TikTok.
TikTok — a wildly popular phone app (especially among Gen Z) — is a short-video social media platform that's been downloaded billions of times. The app provides users with a host of sound clips (everything from movie monologues to popular songs) they can use to make videos, usually about 30 seconds long.
But the platform goes beyond that: It's an app for budding comedians to try out jokes, hobby enthusiasts to share tips and for people of all ages to let loose. And if you just want to watch videos, you don't even have to make an account.
It's also where McFarland can be found dancing, acting and most often, laughing alongside his wife of 34 years, Kathy, and their three millennial sons on their wildly popular family TikTok profile where they're known as The McFarlands. Almost daily, the family posts videos for their 1.2 million followers — an act they say brings them closer together.
"I tell people it's a fun place to see things you are interested in,” Kathy McFarland, 59, says of the app. She uses TikTok to find DIY projects and recipe ideas, including an ice cream cake she made over the weekend.
Connect with children and grandchildren
"There's a natural curiosity,” says Kalhan Rosenblatt, an internet culture reporter for NBC who writes about TikTok. “Once you start using it, you understand how easy it is. It's not just for teens or younger people."
According to a report by Music Business, quarantine is driving a spike in TikTok downloads with more than a billion video views daily. The platform has become an unexpected, and sometimes uproarious, outlet for older adults to engage with their children and grandchildren — even from far apart.
"I have seen more teens featuring their parents and grandparents and talking about how cool and fun they are for being game to try the trends,” Rosenblatt says.
Building memories, even during quarantine
When Shelby Hoefling, 28, and her grandmother, Patricia Hoefling, 94, were quarantined apart, they used TikTok to stay virtually united — and active.
As different virtual dance challenges became popular on the app, Shelby, who was isolated in Falls Church, Virginia, and Patricia, who was in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, would team up to learn the choreography. They've since reunited and film dance challenges together.
Using FaceTime, Shelby filmed each of them dancing alone. The final product cuts between shots of the pair dancing, with Patricia following Shelby's guidance. In another short TikTok the two did together since reuniting, Shelby and Patricia wear matching red tie-dye sweat suits.
"I think every one of our TikTok videos have made me feel closer with Shelby,” Patricia says. “We laugh and reminisce and tell stories of which ones we have done. Each one has made us a little closer than we were yesterday.”
The McFarlands said the app has kept them connected to their kids, too.
"In the last year we have laughed so hard making TikToks,” Dan says. “We are building memories together.”
Learning choreography and finding new recipes
Besides the bonding, Patricia said the dance challenges also help her stay sharp.
"You have to pay attention and know what you are doing,” Patricia said. “We have to really think.”
For Jenny Krupa, 88, her first appearance on TikTok was an accident. It happened last August when her grandson, Skylar, 20, accidentally posted a video he filmed of her for fun, called “Perks of Being Old,” and made it public instead of private. Within 15 minutes, it had 1,000 views.
Now, Krupa — who's known to her 1.4 million followers as J-Dog — has her own TikTok account, produced by Skylar, documenting her life in Alberta, Canada, playing bingo, gushing over her grandchildren and complaining about doctors’ offices, among other things.
According to Rosenblatt, what makes TikTok so alluring is how easy it is to use.
“It's also a great way while everyone is in isolation that they can feel a connection to a community,” she says.
Rosenblatt added that no two people's experiences on the app are alike. TikTok's unique algorithm takes a specific user's interests and caters the videos they'll see based on their browsing history and interests.
"Your algorithm on TikTok is very specific to you,” she says. “If you engage with generational or family-oriented videos, you'll probably be fed more of that."
That's why the McFarland parents say people their age should try the app out for themselves.
“Pick the [videos] you are interested in and swipe by the others,” Dan says. People “should volunteer to create a TikTok with their kids or grandkids. They might be pleasantly surprised."