If you’ve spent the past year on TikTok, you might’ve noticed a certain emergency hand gesture pop up on your feed. For one teenage girl, it might’ve just saved her life.
A 16-year-old passenger made this simple hand gesture, originally designed for victims of domestic abuse, that caught the eye of a 911 caller in Kentucky. Police confronted the man behind the wheel and rescued the young girl, all because of this viral TikTok trend.
But what exactly is the TikTok help hand gesture, and why did it go viral? Here’s what you need to know.
A signal for help during the pandemic
In the September 2020 YouTube video “Violence at Home #SignalForHelp” by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a woman demonstrates a simple hand gesture that victims of domestic abuse can make while on a video call with others. The gesture, which the woman demonstrates while a man is covertly spying on her in the background, is designed to look like a subtle tic during an innocuous conversation unrelated to emotional or physical abuse.
The signal came about as an emergency communication strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which further isolated domestic abuse victims from outside physical contact.
Reposts of the video over the past year subsequently went viral on TikTok via the #SignalForHelp and #handsignal hashtags, which have 24.2 million and 6.9 million views, respectively. Some videos simply showcase the original clip, while others demonstrate what the help hand gesture could look like in the wild in all its variations.
Warning signs and signals commonly go viral on social media, and the TikTok hand signal is no different. When police rescued the 16-year-old allegedly kidnapped by a 61-year-old driver, she claimed she first saw the hand gesture on TikTok during 2020, NPR reports. It’s just another sign that an efficient viral trend showcasing emergency aid information can change the world for the better.
How to make (and identify) the TikTok help hand gesture
The TikTok help hand gesture has two simple steps:
- First, tuck your thumb into your open palm, facing the camera.
- Then, close your fingers around your tucked thumb.
When done correctly, the gesture should look a bit like a gentle fist with the thumb on the inside.
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The gesture can be done and repeated either quickly or slowly, depending on the context. Bear in mind that the motions were originally designed for video calls to aid domestic abuse victims during the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdowns, and thus the open-palm-and-fist motion is purposefully hard to detect without immediate focus.
Therefore, the gesture may be easier to identify (and more efficient to deploy) when a bystander is giving direct attention to a victim of abuse, such as during a one-on-one conversation, a video call, or while driving alongside cars on the highway. The gesture may be harder to identify during short, chance encounters. And of course, some abusers may become more aware of the hand gesture thanks to widespread media reporting, thus making it more difficult for domestic abuse victims to deploy the thumb-in-fist motion subtly.