When she was a sophomore, now senior Sofia Arbelaez made a difficult decision for a teenager. She deleted TikTok.
“I deleted it because I spent too much time on it, and it took time away from everything else,” she said. “[Now], I have so much more time in my day to be productive in other ways, [and] I have time for things that bring me energy.”
TikTok is a social media platform created in 2016 that provides an infinitely scrolling feed of short videos featuring content from both friends and strangers. According to CNBC, TikTok had only 55 million global users in 2018, but confirmed in 2022 that over one billion people actively use the app.
Reportedly the most popular app in the world, TikTok is the second-most popular app (after YouTube) among users aged 13-17, according to a 2022 survey by Pew Research. The app provides short videos with content featuring dancing, celebrities and even friends sharing different aspects of their lives.
Its popularity has invited scrutiny and concerns about issues ranging from its potential for addiction and negative mental health outcomes to the national security risks posed by its Chinese ownership.
Congress has proposed a bipartisan bill to ban the app across the entire country and individual states have passed legislation targeting the app.
Utah, for instance, recently passed legislation starting in 2024 that will ban social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok for minors unless they receive parental consent.
Here in Tennessee, concerns over Chinese influence led to legislation that requires public university Wi-Fi to block the app. Additional steps are being taken on local levels to restrict TikTok, and Shelby County has banned the app on county-issued devices.
Why is this happening?
Is TikTok addictive?
According to the Center for Humane Technology, the average user spends 91 minutes per day scrolling on the platform, the highest usage percentage out of all social media sites, meaning most users spend upwards of 554 hours on TikTok per year. Most users spend upwards of 554 hours on TikTok per year. ”
Most users spend upwards of 554 hours on TikTok per year. ”
Because of these numbers, many professionals, including Nuno Albuquerque, the Consultant Treatment Lead for the UK Addiction Treatment Group, stress the effects that TikTok can have on the minds of younger individuals.
“TikTok addiction is without a doubt a very real thing,” Albuquerque said in an interview with The Independent. “Social Networking Sites like TikTok became a form of escapism for many, especially our younger generation, but what starts as harmless enjoyment can quickly develop into something more serious.”
The addictive potential of TikTok is amplified by a customized algorithm that caters to each user’s interests. The app tracks how users interact with the video whether it be through likes, comments, shares or time spent watching the video. In response, the algorithm provides videos with similar content and even gives some variety to get users hooked to something new.
TikTok collects personal data and information to perfect its algorithm. The app has access to people’s contacts, names, ages and search history, allowing it to ensure the content provided to each person maximizes their engagement.
Sophomore Yusra Siddiq says she spends around 10 hours per week on TikTok and enjoys that it connects her with familiar topics and content that feels relevant.
“It’s comfortable to see other people [on TikTok] going through the same things and issues as me,” she said.
As a student who uses TikTok daily, Siddiq looks to the app as a main source of information.
“It keeps me up to date on a lot of things, and it’s easier to research on TikTok for me,” she said.
Users like Siddiq spend lots of time on TikTok because of its addictive qualities that chemically affect users’ brains.
Many scientists agree that TikTok and many other forms of digital media produce dopamine, a chemical released in the brain that triggers pleasure. When users see a video they like, their brains release dopamine. The infinite scroll combined with the dopamine reward can create a pattern similar to that seen in gambling addictions at extreme levels of TikTok usage.
More time spent on TikTok can make it harder to obtain dopamine naturally. According to Dr. Anna Lembke in her book titled “Dopamine Nation,” social media apps make people less and less happy in their everyday lives.
For Arbelaez, deleting the app improved her mood and caused a significant change in her lifestyle.
“I feel a lot happier [after deleting TikTok],” Arbelaez said. “It’s a lot more fulfilling to get your work done and work towards your goals versus spending time on something that I feel like was inhibiting my progress. It wasn’t serving me so that’s why I got rid of it.” It’s a lot more fulfilling to get your work done and work towards your goals versus spending time on something that I feel like was inhibiting my progress. It wasn’t serving me so that’s why I got rid of it.” — Sofia Arbelaez
It’s a lot more fulfilling to get your work done and work towards your goals versus spending time on something that I feel like was inhibiting my progress. It wasn’t serving me so that’s why I got rid of it.”
— Sofia Arbelaez
Arbelaez credits deleting TikTok with an increase in her productivity, which makes sense because the app has been associated with a decrease in attention spans. Because the average video is around 21 to 34 seconds, TikTok does not require a significant amount of focus or concentration. In fact, according to Maddie Heinz, an English and political science professor at Macalester College, the app decreases the attention spans of its users.
As a result, many have trouble sitting through movies, reading books and working on assignments without feeling the urge to pull out their phone to relieve their boredom.
Carl Marci, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, noticed the correlation between digital media and attention spans.
“It is hard to look at increasing trends in media consumption of all types, media multitasking and rates of ADHD in young people and not conclude that there is a decrease in their attention span,” he said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.
Generation Z is the first generation in history to only know a world with this level of technology. From a young age, this generation was exposed to Youtube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok which places them under the category of “digital natives.” The algorithms themselves end up shaping the development of teenagers on these apps in ways that we don’t understand at all. ” — Avriel Epps-Darling
The algorithms themselves end up shaping the development of teenagers on these apps in ways that we don’t understand at all. ”
— Avriel Epps-Darling
Avriel Epps-Darling, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Harvard Human Development program, explains in a documentary called TikTok, Boom, how being a digital native puts teenagers in vulnerable positions.
“Teenagers are in a really sensitive point in their development both in terms of how their brains are rewiring and in terms of how they’re making sense of themselves and their place in the world,” Epps-Darling said. “What ends up happening is that the algorithms themselves end up shaping the development of teenagers on these apps in ways that we don’t understand at all.”
It’s a problem the Chinese government, which began regulating the Chinese version of the app in 2021, seems to be concerned with.
In China, where TikTok is headquartered, the government puts a 40-minute limit on TikTok per day for children under 14 and shuts down the app entirely after 10 P.M.
Does TikTok damage mental health?
Experts have long recognized a correlation between social media use and reports of increased anxiety and depression.
According to a study conducted at San Diego State University and Florida State University, adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices, and on social media specifically, “were more likely to report mental health issues [than] adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities.”
Social media platforms like TikTok can impact teenagers’ self-image and mental health, in part because they invite comparison. Because the content produced on the app is mainly the exciting and positive aspects of people’s lives, it can make users feel like their lives are not good enough.
Jessica Webster, a licensed professional counselor in the state of Tennessee with a mental health specialty, observed how social media is a facade that rarely produces authenticity.
“You only see people’s highlights…You only see the best of what’s going on in their lives. People don’t post when they’re sad as much, they’re only going to post when having fun,” she said. “When someone struggling with their mental health goes on social media and only sees people having fun, it makes them feel worse.” When someone struggling with their mental health goes on social media and only sees people having fun, it makes them feel worse.” — Jessica Webster
When someone struggling with their mental health goes on social media and only sees people having fun, it makes them feel worse.”
— Jessica Webster
Physical perfection can easily be simulated with the numerous filters available on the app, but most make users’ noses slimmer, lips bigger and eyes lighter, which can further promote unrealistic beauty standards and may prove damaging to users’ body image.
A trend called #whatieatinaday was popular on TikTok a few months ago where users posted what they ate and how many calories they consumed, a practice that may encourage disordered eating
Comments on the app can pose an additional threat to mental health.
“Fairy comments” that feign blatant hate or false positivity get lots of likes on the app. Additionally, the duet feature on TikTok allows users to directly react and respond to videos, which can lead to additional harassment and bullying.
In Webster’s experience as a therapist, she has encountered numerous stories regarding cyberbullying on social media.
“People can [bully] and you don’t even know who’s doing it, it’s so anonymous, and it has led one of my clients to suicidal thoughts because they were bullied anonymously on social media,” she said. “I’ve heard when people make a video [on TikTok] that there are often really, really mean and really, really toxic comments.”
According to a survey by Pew Research, 46% of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 have experienced cyberbullying and received negative comments online. Additionally, 54% of girls ages 15 to 17 have been bullied online compared to 44% of boys ages 15 to 17. Most of this cyberbullying occurs on social media platforms like TikTok.
TikTok has taken direct action in an attempt to combat hate speech on the app. According to tiktok.com, “hateful behavior is incompatible with TikTok’s creative and inclusive environment, and [the company is] committed to continually improving how [they] protect [their] community.”
However, 74% of U.S. teens say social media sites are doing a poor job when it comes to online harassment and online bullying.
Is it time to step away from TikTok?
Even Webster, who is skeptical of the app, acknowledges that there can be a beneficial side to social media like TikTok.
“One of the good things about social media is that it can foster a connection with other people that are like-minded,” she said. “It is a way of connection for most teenagers.”
However, she argues that those who spend excessive amounts of time on social media should use tools to balance their social media usage. According to Webster, the first step is to acknowledge the existence of a problem with screen time on TikTok or other platforms.
“As people, we need to notice and pay attention to what is best for us,” Webster said. “If you’re noticing signs that you’re not living your life and doing the things you used to really enjoy, then you’re probably on your phone or social media too much.”
She then encourages setting limitations on apps like TikTok and using others to stay accountable. She does not suggest deleting every social media platform, though it could be beneficial to some, but to limit usage to whatever is needed for that specific person.
“You need to set some limits for yourself with what you’re consuming and make healthy decisions for yourself,” Webster said. “Ultimately, you have to set a boundary, because when you do that, you show that you care about yourself enough to learn when too much is too much.”
For Arbelaez, setting boundaries meant deleting the app entirely.
“Especially in high school…we’re just like trying to figure out like how we want to spend our time, and TikTok is not how I want to spend mine,” Arbelaez said. “I think it boils down to self-awareness and seeing how things work or don’t work for you.”