The Time To Take On TikTok Is Now
In China it's Spinach, In America it's Opium
To see the catastrophic effect TikTok has on the brains of our young, you don’t have to look very far. Earlier this year a young family member ended up in the emergency room with a cup vacuum-stuck to her lips. After a few tugs and half a jar of Vaseline, it turned out that the bright idea stemmed from the #KylieJennerChallenge on TikTok.
A few thick lips aside, there is something sinister going on with the Chinese-run platform. With every iteration of social media, the corresponding brood of teens has become lonelier, more miserable and even more anxious. This process has reached its purest form in TikTok. The difference is that this time it might have been by design.
“Beijing’s digital fentanyl” is how the Federal Communications Commission’s Brendan Carr describes the app. “The problems present themselves as soon as you sign up; it starts feeding you content directly from a Beijing-originated algorithm.” Mr. Carr is one of many Americans calling for a total ban on TikTok. One reason, he says, was a recent study showing that accounts set up for thirteen-year-old girls were offering self-harm and eating-disorder content in as little as three minutes.
Is this all that different from my teenage years, when eating disorders and self-harm were rife among youngsters with the help of a different social media website, Tumblr? Anyone who was a teenage girl in the aughts will tell you of the streams of Tumblr pictures, the artily lit goths with nihilistic phrases carved into their arms.
While Twitter and Instagram offer you the choice of which accounts to follow, TikTok gives users very little control over what they see. As you flick through its videos, the app measures your dwell time, whether you look at the comments or click on the author’s profile. All these things tell TikTok whether you’re engaged, and whether or not you’re interested in this content. The problem, of course, is that you might be one of those young women recovering from an eating disorder. On one level, you want to avoid content about bulimia or anorexia. But on another, you can’t help looking, even if for a moment. TikTok measures all this and force-feeds you your instinctive desires. Conscious choice is almost entirely cut out.
It isn’t just kids. I often find myself having a TikTok break. Horizontal in bed, I promise myself I’ll look at the app “just for ten minutes.” Hours later I catch myself still there, with no recollection of where the day has gone. By design, TikTok shows series of very short, emotionally engaging clips. You might see a soldier coming home from duty, hugging his kids, followed by a crackhead screaming in her car, followed by a video recipe for apple pie, followed by dogs, road traffic accidents, cottage-core inspo, street pranks, dancing teenagers and bar fights. Each time emotions are elicited, only to be immediately forgotten once the next video hits. When you finally manage to put your phone down, there’s a strange feeling of emptiness. Your emotions are all jumbled up for no good reason, no narrative to explain why you feel as you do. After all, you’ve just watched a hundred-plus videos with nothing linking them together, apart from the fact that a Chinese-designed algorithm thought they might interest you.
As of last November, TikTok had over 138 million active users in the US, two-thirds of whom are under thirty. Dr. David Barnhart, clinical mental health counselor at Behavioral Sciences of Alabama, has previously spoken about how TikTok distorts the way people view themselves. He has warned that the effect of viewing dozens of videos within minutes activates reward pathways in the brain. The result in young users is a reaction that looks a lot like addiction, with users seeking constant stimulation. “They begin to get this view of themselves in comparison to other people. The more of that we see, the more distorted our view of what it’s like to be the best, to be good,” Barnhart says. “We don’t have an awareness of what we are doing to our own brains.”