Maghull, Liverpool, UK – With around 800 million active users, video sharing app TikTok is the latest craze to take the social media world by storm, quickly becoming the biggest platform for young people around the world.
It’s not difficult to become entranced by the app, mindlessly scrolling through the endless supply of 15-second videos, telling yourself `just one more’ until you look up from your phone and an hour has passed.
“it’s incredibly addicting,” said 15-year-old Brooke Dunn of Liverpool. “Sometimes it can be bad for your mental health, too.”
Many believe that the use of TikTok may be damaging the attention spans of developing brains. After consuming many 15-second-long, high intensity videos, many find it extremely difficult to focus on longer tasks and even struggle to watch a 30-minute video on YouTube.
But what makes TikTok so appealing to young people? And why is it so hard to stop using?
TikTok is a uniquely recreational app, unlike the social commentary and confrontation of other platforms like Twitter, it provides a space for young people to get lost in a world of exaggerated fun and bizarre humor.
Ethan Bresnick, a researcher at the USC school of cinematic arts in California, views TikTok as a virtual playground, where young people experience the feeling of intensified play.
“Everything is hyperbolic and super loud and intense,” Bresnick explained, and “Characteristics … like speeding up videos and jump cutting and remixing other people’s videos with duet and react features, they started to seem like forms of play.”
This type of play is very specific to our generation, according to Bresnick.
“This generation has a love for creation on their phones, visual storytelling that other generations haven’t had before.”
In such difficult times, it seems like young people are enticed by the prospect of a space reserved for fun and once one person decides to join this space, others do the same.
“When one person joins the app, more people want to get on board,” Bresnick said.
This is supported by a localized culture on the app. Videos will often include current trends, challenges or jokes that could only be understood by a TikTok user.
“When you have this localized culture … it creates an exclusivity,” Bresnick said, “so once you join the app and familiarize yourself with this community and how this play structure works, you’re within that world.” This is essential to giving young people a reason to stay on the app.
At first, it may be hard to enter this community, but it becomes much harder to leave.
Once TikTok has you invested, it is designed to make you keep you scrolling.
Psychologists link this to the idea of random reinforcement: a possible reward available at irregular intervals. You won’t like every video you see, but there are enough enjoyable videos to keep you watching for the chance of coming across one that you do like.
In an interview with Forbes, University of Southern California Professor Julie Albright, author of the book Left to Their Own Devices, discussed the concept of random reinforcement.
“When you’re scrolling … sometimes you see a photo or something that’s delightful and it catches your attention,” Albright explained to Forbes. “And you get that little dopamine hit in the brain … in the pleasure centre of the brain. So, you want to keep scrolling.”
This relies on the element of uncertainty in TikTok, despite having strict conventions you can`t predict how an existing video, sound or format will be used, keeping you scrolling for more.
Also, many people find the app particularly addicting due to its customized nature. TikTok uses artificial intelligence to create a personalized ‘for you’ page that supplies endless videos based on previous viewing and interactions on the app. The more you watch, the more personalized it becomes.
“At the core of matching viewers to creators is really strong machine learning,” Bresnick explained.
The addiction to consuming videos on the app is because users are able to explore their personal interests on it, according to Bresnick.
“Your `for you’ page is going to look very different to mine,” Bresnick said.
It’s hard to find a reason to stop watching these videos when every one of them matches your interests.
“I actually think it affects your concentration because it’s like instant satisfaction,” said Niamh Hughes, 15, of Liverpool. “I think it has really affected my attention span.”
Hughes said when she’s doing schoolwork, she isn’t able to concentrate because she doesn’t get that instant satisfaction.
But this is something that has actually been happening for a long time. For example, films released in the ‘60s that were groundbreaking at the time now feel slow and lethargic compared to modern films that jump straight into the plot.
There have always been significant anxieties about the problems any new technology or movement may cause in society, known as a moral panic.
“As a younger person writing about TikTok, I have a very optimistic view because I’ve been alive during other moral panics with technology,” Bresnick said. “There’s always been worry with new technologies.”
In a way, TikTok is remarkably similar to the early forms of media.
“The first CinemaScopes that were in carnivals were hand-cranked machines that you put your eyes into and they played little looping videos,” Bresnick said, practically describing the format of TikTok.
There’s no doubt that the app can be extremely addictive and the effects of this can be damaging.
In writing this story, I had to delete the app from my phone in order to concentrate.
TikTok provides a social and creative space for young people that many find valuable, but like any other online platform, it will be up to users to learn how to enjoy this virtual playground while also being able to leave it safely.
Matty Ennis is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International. He wrote this news story and drew the illustration at the top. He also wrote an accompanying personal perspective about his own experience with TikTok.
Yunkyo Kim is a Senior Correspondent with Youth Journalism International. She drew the four panel cartoon.