The scariest of things are those we do not see coming, which is as true for monsters in horror movies as it is for addiction. While monsters hide under the bed, TikTok disguises itself as a harmless medium for relaxation and enjoyment — Are you bored? Tired after a long day at work? Why don’t you go on TikTok for some harmless, fun, and relaxing scrolling?
TikTok gives the appearance of satisfying the needs that drove someone to pick up the app. During a session of scrolling, the user is overwhelmed by the sensory input on the screen and thus experiences a break from the constant stream of worries going on in their minds.
TikTok works a bit like a quick fix in that it momentarily distracts users from their concerns. But make no mistake, the troubles remain and are made worse by pushing them aside. Each session of scrolling overloads the user’s dopamine circuits (pleasure hormones), decreasing our ability to enjoy life through lessening overall motivation and attention span. It means one is dooming oneself without noticing it. After all, it is hard to notice the small long-term changes and way easier to consider the immense moment-to-moment satisfaction of scrolling on the app.
The popular social media platform TikTok is a well-oiled machine built to attract and retain users at any cost.
But isn’t this true for all social media apps?
Certainly! But if Twitter & Instagram are a 6 in addictiveness, TikTok scores a 10. This is because TikTok takes the same formula and extends it with an interface, content type, and algorithm further developed to make you addicted to the app. To elucidate how hard it is to escape the loop, consider these statistics:
TikTok’s userbase boasted a global average of 95 minutes per day in usage time during Q2 2022. This means that TikTok’s users are more active than Youtube’s (74 minutes), despite TikTok specializing in short clips of 15–60 seconds while Youtube traditionally is home to long-form content.
Again, TikTok is not just another social media app; it is by far the most addictive. In another article, it has even been given the flattering denomination of “Digital Crack Cocaine.”
How does TikTok do it?
The makeup of TikTok is optimized for addictive potential. In this section, I will center on three critical components of the TikTok formula to explain how the app manages to be so addictive. These are Algorithmic Intelligence (1), type of content (2), and Interface (3).
- Algorithmic Intelligence & The AI-Powered SlotMachine
Opening up TikTok immediately results in being captured by a personalized, easily digestible stream of videos. With each interaction on the platform and data collected from online activity, TikTok extrapolates preferences to create an infinite loop of appetizing content. If you have ever used TikTok, you are well aware of the feeling of opening the app for a quick scroll, looking up from it after what you think was five minutes, and noting that afternoon is due.
Also worth mentioning about TikTok’s feed is that the algorithm purposefully varies the type of content you encounter. Not only in length and genre but also in what you are most likely to enjoy. This means that sometimes you watch a video that spikes your dopamine, while at other times, it’s more like “meh.” It makes the experience exciting, a bit like a treasure hunt or a slot machine. And it’s incredibly, incredibly addicting!
2. Content & The Power of Flashing Lights and Music Stimulation
While Instagram floods the user with Images and Twitter opts for short text snippets, TikTok specializes in clips of flashing lights and music stimulation. And although they may be short, the clips have the potential to contain an extensive cocktail of sensory impressions.
3. Interface designed to minimize limbic friction
TikTok has a sleek design that minimizes the amount of distracting elements/ friction between you and the interface. Human psychology has primed us to seek the path of least resistance; TikTok’s design team knows this. For instance, TikTok’s feed consumes the entire device’s screen, which creates an immersive experience for users. You don’t even have to decide whether to pause the video to comment or not, for it is possible to comment while the video is playing. Besides, there are no breaks and no time set for pondering; maybe I should do something else with my time — there is only constant stimulation.
What is wrong with being addicted to TikTok?
TikTok’s short video format has been linked to a decreased attention span. According to an article in The Independent, those who use the app for over 90 minutes can narrow their collective attention span over time.
TikTok has proven exceptional at hijacking brain chemistry, causing the user’s dopamine receptors to multiply, which means they will require more and more dopamine to activate.
In practice, this means that the more we are exposed to addictive material, the harder it becomes to resist its allure. For instance, I suspect that many of you are addicted to coffee, but also that it has not always been this way. In the beginning, you may opt for one cup, but as the years’ pass, you find yourself unable to function without 2,3,4, and sometimes even 5 cups of coffee a day!
The point is, if you become used to viewing extremely exciting short-form content, then your brain will seek it out. It is, after all, a much faster way of getting your dopamine fix, coming up to the levels now necessary for pleasure. It becomes harder to focus because you won’t get as much immediate pleasure from other activities (although they may, in the long-term, lead to a much more pleasurable existence).
A common occurrence among people with short attention spans is having a hard time watching movies that require buildup and, gods forbid, reading books. It’s just not exciting enough. In short, with a shorter attention span, more stimulation is necessary to satisfy one’s need for dopamine, leading to a lesser ability to muster motivation and excitement about life.
Moving on. People differ in their susceptibility to addictive substances and how and to which degree this affects them throughout life. One such group of people for whom the hidden dangers of TikTok are even more challenging to resist is children and teenagers. A group of people whom TikTok has repeatedly been in the media’s corsair for targeting.
TikTok actively targets children and teenagers
Although other social media platforms are dangerous, one of the significant reasons TikTok is the most terrifying of the bunch is its active targeting of children and teenagers. Due to children’s frontal lobes being far from fully developed, they are more vulnerable to sales tactics. More specifically, this is due to a lack of critical and long-term thinking.
For example, every time I try to discuss the subject with my sister (14 years), she looks at me weirdly. TikTok is fun, and all her friends use it; what else is there to care about?
Besides, what we learn and get used to as young members of society stays with us the longest/is harder to get rid of. In contention, this makes generation Z (and younger) into perfect consumers today and for future utility.
TikTok is destroying a generation, all for the prospect of earning more money. All the while, they try to keep up an appearance of child protection through, for instance, asking upon signing up to the app: “sign here that you are over 13 years old”.
If they did care about children and teenagers’ safety, they would have done more than the bare minimum to comply with regulations. It suffices with a quick look at the famous TikTokers and the advertisement output to see the actual target audience.
The hidden dangers of TikTok lay in (1) its efficient use of human psychology to capture the attention of potential users in the guise of a harmless medium for fun and relaxation. And (2), once the user is caught in the trap, it becomes difficult to escape due to an increased susceptibility to dopamine spikes and an inability to engage in content that demands patience. Finally, The less likely the person is to resist the pull of TikTok, the better a consumer he or she is — which is why TikTok explicitly targets younger demographics.