The instructions for Cole’s future girlfriend could not be clearer. Set to the breathy, mournful pop ballad “Surrender” by Natalie Taylor, they appear on screen one by one in a TikTok video uploaded in early July. Cole’s new girlfriend – his ex instructs via a tearful video montage – should “be patient with him”, “be there when he’s struggling” and “let him live his life”.
This TikTok was made by a young American woman, likely a teen, though it’s not clear exactly how old she is in the video. The clip gained over 60,000 “hearts” on the platform, but earned nearly double the number of likes when it was mocked on Twitter by a user who called it “unhinged”. Yet, though the video seems remarkable to older Twitter users, it is not especially out of place on the timelines of teen TikTokers.
Search the hashtag #breakup on the app today and you’ll see a number of similarly earnest and emotional videos. One popular format sees teen girls packing away their ex’s belongings while playing the Hannah Montana song, “I’ll Always Remember You”. One video, with over 5.6 million likes, shows a young woman hugging the air where her boyfriend would have been, before announcing, “He didn’t die, he just broke my heart.”
Of course, adults also take part in the heartbreak trend. Under the hashtag #divorce, you can watch men dramatically throwing away their wedding rings, or women crying in front of their wedding photos. Crying selfies are not an especially new phenomenon – they’ve been posted by everyone from classicist Dame Mary Beard to rapper Post Malone – but they’re still not entirely normalised. A Sky opinion article from 2018 summarises why some still find this content “unhinged”:
“Bursting into tears is a natural release for the body and mind, it's a basic human reaction. However, if you have the presence of mind to pick up a camera and start filming that emotion, I feel the act changes from being natural to theatrical.”
TikTok videos seem to take the theatrics up a notch, but it makes sense that teens perform their heartbreak on a platform that became the most downloaded non-gaming app in the world this July. At their essence, #breakup videos are no different from “It’s Complicated” Facebook posts, heartbreak emojis in MSN names and sad MySpace selfies taken with a rigid extended arm.
Yet the content feels different, not only because video is an inherently more revealing format (with none of the mystery and intrigue of a </3), but also because teens’ social media spaces are less private than they might have been ten years ago. If you changed your Other Half on Bebo once every two hours in 2008, this fact wouldn’t then be shared by adults mocking it for their own clout, nor would a digital culture writer end up exploring your actions in a 1,000-word article.
Three teenage girls who recently created heartbreak videos agreed to chat to shed light on the phenomenon. Charisma, who is 17, filmed a TikTok video of herself crying in February; it went on to gain 1.4 million likes. In the video, the teen does a self-care moisturising routine, talks to her mum and sobs behind the caption “falling apart”.
“I never thought the video was gonna go viral – it was for me, in a way, to vent and express myself,” says Charisma, who was with her ex for two months. She explains she wanted to create the video to show people “it’s OK to cry”, and says she felt supported by the TikTok community when the video blew up.
“A lot of content on TikTok is very filtered and very hateful,” she says, arguing breakup videos help counter this by allowing people to “reach out and support each other in a time of need”. Charisma received multiple DMs from strangers asking for help with their heartbreak, but also experienced “a lot, a lot” of hate from people at her school who sent anonymous messages calling her a “cry baby” and “overdramatic”.
“It was just hateful,” she says, “but I didn’t care, because the amount of people that it reached, that it positively impacted, I was so grateful for.”
Alice, who is also 17, filmed herself packing up her relationship mementos in March. In the video, she showcases jewellery, theme park tickets and old photos that remind her of her ex. Like Charisma, she says she was motivated to help other people with her video, and also wanted to look back on fond memories of her 11-month and three week-long relationship. “Everyone has a different method of coping, and if their method is making videos about it, let them be,” she says.
Rhi*, who is 19, says her own 2019 #breakup TikTok video also helped her cope. “The video was a good release for me to know that this break up was good for me in the long run,” she says. In the video, she shows off notes, concert tickets, fortune cookie slips, photos, and jewellery that her ex returned to her after their relationship ended. She says the video gained over 2 million views. “I just knew I needed to find a way to get my feelings out while I was stuck in college away from my mum, who I usually go to when I’m feeling down,” Kai says.
Charisma, Alice and Rhi all say they watch #breakup videos themselves and find them helpful, but their exes offer different perspectives. Charisma says her ex was originally upset by her TikTok, believing it to be “bashing” him, before the couple talked it through. Rhi’s ex Jarrod gets in touch with VICE to share his view, arguing the relationship and breakup was more complicated than a one-sided TikTok montage can show.
“I understand TikTok can be therapeutic, because I’ve posted therapeutic TikToks myself,” he says, adding: “I believe breakup TikToks aren’t very therapeutic at all, because if you really wanted to let go, you can always confide in your friends – you don’t need to put it out there for potentially millions of people to see.”
It is undeniable that #breakup videos resonate with millions of people – Rhi gained over 10,000 followers after posting her video, while Charisma’s follower count jumped up by 40,000. This type of content is now so popular that the #breakup hashtag is populated by blatantly fake content cashing in on relationship drama.
For these three teens, however, their emotions were all too real. “The emotion I put into it was raw, it was not filtered in any way,” Charisma says. “I was surprised it reached that many people, but I was really, really glad that it did, because people were able to see that this is OK.”
When asked what she would say to adults who might judge this type of content harshly, her message is simple: “Times have changed.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.