While the focus on banning TikTok nationally, and even in states, over worries about Chinese spying on American citizens, another concern with the app begs our attention – the mental health of our youth.
TikTok is a social media application that provides viewers with short videos of its users doing goofy dances, little skits, eating, drinking, and chipmunks eating acorns. It is also used to promote products, books, and careers.
TikTok learns from your views. Pause for 3 seconds on a video, and it knows what you saw caught your attention. It then serves you more of the same, refining its delivery to videos you engage with longer. Now you don’t have to search for content that interests you, TikTok serves it up in an addictive endless stream of an average of 15-second clips.
When you join TikTok, it reaches out to the web, gathering your search history and browsing habits – it learns a lot about you before you even start creating a profile with your interactions with the app.
TikTok dominates social media. It has 150 million users in the U.S. and people spend more time with it than with Google. The average TikTok user spends 90 minutes daily entertained and chained to short videos. Some people will spend as much as 4 hours a day with it daily.
There is no secret to what is behind its addictive power. Facebook’s “like” and Twitter’s “retweet” buttons capitalized on it a decade ago. Dopamine.
“Humans are biologically motivated to seek rewards,” the respected Cleveland Clinic states on its website. We get these rewards when doing things we enjoy with friends, doing pleasurable activities, doing good deeds, or spending money on something we want. In the process, our body releases a chemical called dopamine, which provides pleasure to our senses.
That’s dopamine’s good side. Its dark side is that it can be harnessed to create addictive behaviors – like constantly needing to see the next short TikTok video, and then the next, and the next.
Five years ago, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya described Facebook’s use of the “like” button and other mechanisms to capture users and hold them as “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created [that] are destroying how society works.”
In a column about the threat TikTok poses to today’s youth, Fareed Zakaria, who hosts CNN’s weekly Sunday Global Public Square (GPS) program, wrote: “TikTok provides this dopamine hit perhaps faster, better and more pleasurably than other popular apps.” We are constantly fed “little treats” that reward our behavior and encourage us to return for more.
Our youth were the most easily attracted and addicted to social media’s dopamine rushes with devastating and continuing consequences.
“We are a decade into the largest epidemic of adolescent mental illness ever recorded,” Jonathon Haidt writes. “It’s time we started treating social media like automobiles and firearms.” Haidt is an American social psychologist, author, and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University.
Haidt ties the rise in youth mental health problems to the acceleration of social media use not just in America but in Canada, Europe, and Australia.
“Around 2012, he argues, you begin to see all kinds of indications of declining mental health, from self-reported feelings to hospitalizations to suicide attempts,” Zakaria writes in his column. “The rise in anxiety, depression and attempted suicides among teenage girls is particularly frightening. And these numbers are getting worse by the year.”
On social media platforms, people are driven “to perform in pursuit of… prestige and influence. There was a sudden increase in shouting and a decline in listening. There was a loss of shared stories, shared meanings, and human relationships,” he says.
After reading Haidt’s research on the impact of social media on young people, Zakaria wrote, “I came away from it utterly convinced that he is right, and we need serious rules and laws surrounding this technology.”
Recognizing it had a problem and faced sanctions from lawmakers, TikTok took some preemptive actions. This past March, it introduced new safeguards to address concerns about abuse of its app by teen users. It is limiting screen time for kids under the age of 18 to 60 minutes per day. It’s mostly a gimmick. Kids can get additional time by entering a passcode which forces them to “make an active decision to extend that time.”
A TikTok teen needing that next dopamine shot isn’t going to sit back and say, “Oh, the responsible thing to do is turn it off.” No, the vast majority will enter the passcode.
Kids under 13 are also limited to 60 minutes but their passcode must be entered by a parent or guardian to gain another half-hour of screen time. How many parents will refuse the passcode? How many kids will simply lie about their age?
TikTok is also sending teens a weekly tally of the time they’ve spent on the site, suggesting that it will act as a wake-up call to those spending more than 100 minutes a week with it. We doubt it will be a deterrent.
As half-measures are implemented to get teens to cut back on TikTok use, the methods of addicting them will get more sophisticated.
“The next technological leap is generative artificial intelligence,” Zakaria writes. “Once that is fully married to social media, those companies will have a superhuman capacity to create addiction machines of astonishing power that could hook us permanently, perhaps even rewire our brains with devastating consequences. We should act now, while we have the time — and the attention span.”
TikTok is more than just empty calories for the soul. It can be toxic.
We evolved to do better in groups than we do alone. But TikTok and other social media isolate us in their lonely worlds. Real-life interaction is absent. Rather than the warmth of touch and the sharing of a laugh giving us the dopamine rush in nurturing companionship, the little electronic treats leave us socially malnourished.