Working from home during a pandemic is a huge burden on parents, especially if they feel guilty for using the internet as child care. Well, it turns out that at least one common online activity for teens, TikTok, is subversively educational.

While most social media platforms are either passive, like YouTube, or chatty, like Twitter. TikTok is activity-based. To participate, kids design or imitate short dances and tumbling routines set to short clips of popular songs.

Most people born previous to Y2K seem to think TikTok is a sign that civilization is going to hell in a handspring. Indeed, some of the ire directed against TikTok is less about data gathering and more about Boomer horror when they see the app for the first time.

Before getting their shorts in a twist, however, the oldsters might consider doing a little research on the subject, because there's ample scientific evidence that learning dance routines to music increases reading fluency and therefore literacy.

The connection between literacy and musical movement opens the very first paragraph of the 2014 book The Music and Literacy Connection, which is based on research conducted at the University of Hartford and Wichita State University:

Just ask any music teacher who teaches primary-grade children. They can tell you which children might be able to read more proficiently than others by observing their musical behaviors. Among other indicators, these children have a great sense of rhythm; they can clap on the left side of their bodies, then the right without missing a beat.

While the authors are discussing music education, the behavior they're describing here is the most common use of TikTok.

It turns out there's a long history of scientific studies connecting music and movement with literacy. Alice-Ann Darrow at Florida State University recently summarized that research:

Parallel skills in music and reading include phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, sight word identification, orthographic awareness, cueing systems awareness, and fluency.

In other words, as silly as TikTok seems to their elders, kids are actually (if unwittingly) increasing their reading skills when they imitate and record the dances they see on the platform.

This should not be surprising considering that language and music evolved in parallel. In fact, the first percussion instruments in the archaeological record appeared simultaneously with the emergence of our species (Homo sapiens) in Africa.

Needless to say, TikTok isn't as effective at increasing literacy as actually studying and learning to read music. However, unlike passive social media (like YouTube), TikTok is not just giving kids a good workout but is actually helping them prepare for the real world.