TikTok used to be a place you’d go to watch viral dance routines, dodgy lip syncing attempts and the occasional comedy sketch. Now, it’s a platform where you can easily see disturbing content you didn’t ask for in the middle of a mindless bedtime scroll. The most recent video that stopped my thumb from swiping and left me repeatedly replaying in disbelief? A prank.
In the video – captioned “I feel bad for this”, accompanied by the hashtag #prankwars – a man picks up his girlfriend in his car and props up his phone to film their interaction. As she settles in the passenger seat, he tells her that he doesn’t like her makeup and she doesn’t look good. Naturally, she gets upset, at which point the prank is revealed. Posted last year, the video has brought in thousands of views and generated myriad copycats – just search “pranking my girlfriend in my car”.
Videos of pranks are as old as the internet. They’re so popular that pranksters are a brand of influencer in their own right now, forging high salary careers centred around filming gotcha moments while audiences watch in horror, admiration, humour and/or disbelief. For the most part, these videos are harmless, but the pranking isn’t always light-hearted. And when the pranks involve couples, they become a part of a problematic fascination with dramatic, complicated and toxic relationships on TikTok.
People vandalise their partners’ cars, conduct loyalty tests to see if they would cheat, or tell their partner they’re pregnant to capture their reaction. As the culprit reel their heads back in laughter, sometimes while their partner cries or storms off, it’s clear the video is meant to be funny. But why would anyone treat their partner like that? And is it really that funny?
The tricky thing is, TikTok users love watching bad relationships and shit behaviour. Aside from pranking, videos that showcase other red flag behaviours – such as cheating, bad communication, awkward sex stories and even abuse – always do the rounds on the platform. There’s even a whole community dedicated to it, “messy TikTok”, which has raked in a massive 2.6 billion views.
But the content of these videos doesn’t feel like lighthearted pranks or cute relationship jokes. In fact, Laura Mucha, a lawyer who works with psychologists to disseminate academic information, says some of this content could genuinely be considered emotional abuse.
“The definition of emotional abuse involves the humiliation or degradation of a partner,” she tells THE FACE. Mucha also shares concerns about whether these creators are seeking consent to post the videos after their partners have reacted so viscerally. “I can’t imagine they took the time to sit down and say, ‘Can I have full consent to upload this video? You are put in a position to reject this permission. Our relationship will not be impacted by your refusal to give permission, you hereby agree to permit that you will. I will say this and it may be shared more widely. And people that you’ve never met in their millions will be free to share their cool opinions on your behaviour?’” she says. “I just don’t think that’s happening.”
Often, these videos will quickly be deleted or clarifications will be posted in the comments in response to criticism, which shows that these creators know they’re crossing the line. So why do they do it in the first place?
Emily Van Der Nagel, a Lecturer in Social Media at Monash University, tells THE FACE that, sometimes, pranks are played as a way to establish or remove social status. “When a prank is played on someone, the pranked person loses social status,” she explains. “As observers, we often become aware of our own social status as a response – safe in our role as the voyeur, our own status is not threatened. There’s certainly a pleasure there related to how we feel about ourselves.”
Regardless of whether these pranks are for laughs, views or to inflate the creator’s egos, that’s a bizarre dynamic to create in a relationship. Most people want to feel equal in a relationship and most people – regardless of their dating criteria or personal values – want to be with someone who is kind. Tipping the power away from the person you’re supposed to love towards yourself is counterintuitive.
It could be, however, that the desire for fame simply outweighs the need to treat a partner kindly for some. Research tells us that people want to be famous now more than ever, with one in four millennials saying they’d quit their job for any kind of fame and half of 16-year-olds saying “fame” (of no particular kind) is their ideal career.
Maja Golf Papez, PhD, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Sussex Business School, tells THE FACE that, in some cases, “partner humiliation is used as a strategy to get and to keep attention from online audiences. The target’s embarrassed, angry, or sad response brings voyeuristic pleasure to the online spectators who can watch without being seen or asked to interfere.
“Not all public humiliation is done for social media fame though. Some people might publicly humiliate their partners for more personal reasons,” she continues. “They might feel that their partners deserve punishment, or they desire to obtain sympathy and understanding from their followers.”
Whatever the motive, she warns that “selling” your real-life relationship on social media in any way is “riddled with challenges”. Followers and fans can “feel a strong sense of personal investment in the relationship” [and the pranks and tests involved] and may feel like they are entitled to regular updates.
“Some fans act as online warriors, showing loyalty to one person and publicly attacking and shaming their partner,” she explains. “Social media shamers typically underestimate the negative impact that their disapproval can have on the targets and it is likely that online shaming is a disproportionate punishment for relationship transgressions.”
Watching someone else lose face can feel affirming when you’re the one safely watching at home, but being the recipient of endless tricks, pranks and tests in your own private relationship can have serious repercussions. Sure, creating content that humiliates other people does rake in views and likes. But at what expense?