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'Mom Of TikTok' Uses App To Bring Realness

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Most people know the popular app TikTok as either a political target for the Trump administration or as a place where kids show off dance moves and artists showcase their talents. But a 48-year-old woman from Nebraska has become an improbable star, racking up 2.9 million followers as the Mom of TikTok. She doles out sometimes controversial advice to teens and parents and makes real connections with her followers. Brandon McDermott from member station NET in Nebraska has this profile.

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SAMANTHA HOWSDEN WARD: (Singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.

BRANDON MCDERMOTT, BYLINE: This isn't how Samantha Howsden Ward started posting videos to TikTok a little more than a year ago. Originally, it was to help students prep for their ACTs. But when she started posting parenting advice, kids really responded.

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HOWSDEN WARD: Phone, diary, equivalent in today's world. We didn't want our parents opening these up in the '80s or '90s.

MCDERMOTT: The TikTok community really took notice late last year when she posted about an app called Life360 that allows parents to follow every move their kids make. Howsden Ward told followers it was an invasion of privacy. The more she posted about Life360, the more kids shared personal horror stories about the app.

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HOWSDEN WARD: This one kid said, OK, so my mom texts me, why did you take a left? Then she calls me. Why didn't you answer my text? And he's, like, mom, I'm driving.

MCDERMOTT: Howsden Ward started talking to parents, too. Soon, the Mom of TikTok had such an impact on the Life360 app that the CEO reached out to her to meet and hear her concerns. The app has since made some of the changes that Howsden Ward suggested, including a new setting that gives kids more privacy from their parents. She's now an unpaid consultant for Life360.

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HOWSDEN WARD: This middle-aged mom in the middle of nowhere reached the coast, the CEO who reached out to me, and it has broadened my world.

MCDERMOTT: During the pandemic, she's used TikTok to share her life lessons and experiences with others. Michael Williams (ph), who lives 1,200 miles away in South Carolina, was struggling with depression and says Howsden Ward's genuineness hooked him the first time he scrolled to her page and has kept him coming back.

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HOWSDEN WARD: If I didn't want to talk, I could have exited out, closed my phone and went and done something else. But she brought value to my life and made the time worth it.

MCDERMOTT: And when Howsden Ward was married in Las Vegas recently, she brought Williams along with her to livestream the wedding. She's now working to nurture other young TikTokers (ph) to grow their platforms.

For NPR News, I'm Brandon McDermott in Lincoln, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "ABRASIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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