A new cast member on the “reality” show Return to Amish named Johnny Detweiler has been sharing his wild Rumspringa life on TikTok. He has amassed a good-sized following of over 100,000 followers (I expect that will likely double or triple as the show has just started a new season).
I’m not too keen on embedding TikTok videos, but you can check out the channel at his handle @johnnydetweiler4 on that platform if you like. And while I haven’t dug in deeply on his channel, videos showing partying, drinking, and some obscene gestures are easy to find.
In fairness, that’s not entirely what the channel is about – there are a good number of videos showing family and innocent scenes of Amish life. But the edgier videos are the ones that get attention. And so this will likely get a good bit of traction as these things tend to do.
In fact, the story of Johnny’s channel has already been picked up on large media like Yahoo News and UK tabloids The Daily Mail and The Sun (I’ve noticed Amish topics tend to get a good amount of attention across the pond).
So there are some questions to consider. The more obvious first: Is Johnny’s depiction of Amish teen life “accurate”? For some, sure. Some Amish youth do have wild Rumspringa years, like that depicted on his channel. A lot don’t though. And Amish parents aren’t really promoting this type of thing (though some parents, self-aware of their own wilder pasts, certainly do implicitly permit or condone it).
The nuance is often not included in media coverage, and almost never by the producers of the content itself. So certainly this will reinforce the “wild Rumspringa” version that some think applies to all Amish. This is what sells, of course, so it’s not surprising.
At the same time I’m going to give credit to Yahoo News, who are more careful to note the other side here (full disclosure: looks like they are citing from my own article here on Rumspringa).
The thing is that the more attention- and click-getting thing always has the upper hand on the more complicated and nuanced explanation. So on net, this will go to promoting the “wild Rumspringa” version of Amish adolescence. Just as media like the Devil’s Playground film in the early 2000s or Breaking Amish in the 2010s did in their respective eras.
Who does this hurt?
Another question: does this do harm? And if so, to whom? Some Amish will find this offensive (though likely many more will simply ignore or be unaware of such depictions). And some non-Amish will find shows like Return to Amish or Johnny Detweiler’s TikTok channel offensive, on behalf of the Amish. But as far as actual damage done to “the Amish” as a whole, I don’t think that it moves the needle much, if at all.
The fact is there are always going to be misconceptions about the Amish held by a significant chunk of the population. Academic books or sites like the one you’re reading right now may attempt to present a more accurate view, but are ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to popular culture and social media. And the more edgy and clickable storylines will always have a built-in advantage in the type of media world we live in today.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to try to put out more accurate or “balanced” info on the Amish. It’s just that bad or distorted info will always be out there (like it is on many different topics). Or, especially in today’s environment, one person’s individual experience, amplified via social media or other channels, will be assumed to also represent other members of that group.
But it’s not the end of the world.
The greater potential damage is probably to the actual participants in Amish reality programs and channels like Johnny Detweiler’s, and those in their immediate circle (including their Amish families, who probably bear varying degrees of shame on behalf of their relatives).
And also for the participants themselves, some of whom might eventually choose Amish adult lives, and look back on their adolescent actions with some measure of regret. But in that, they wouldn’t exactly be unique either.
What do you think?