In August of 2018, a Chinese social media platform called ‘TikTok’ launched into the United States market. Two years later, six out of every ten teens in the US are using it. The explosion of the short form video app is unsurprising, considering that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, spent over one billion dollars advertising their brand in 2018 alone. After flying under the radar, the app started being attacked by concerned parents and teens worried about presumed negative mental and social effects on youth. My experience on TikTok is limited, as I’ve never downloaded the app, but I’ve spent three or four hours in total watching TikTok videos over the shoulders of friends or in messages sent to me. All that said, after talking with some students at Berkeley High School (BHS), I am unable to ignore negative trends on TikTok and I cannot suggest that anyone downloads it.
Simply put, TikTok isn’t good for body image. The first thing that stands out when browsing TikTok is the number of conventionally beautiful people. While beauty is subjective, it does not feel like a stretch to say that the ‘For You Page,’ a personalized page of posts compiled by TikTok’s algorithm, is dominated by people who could be models. This is not unusual across social media, but that doesn’t mean it is ever okay. Kids, preteens, and teens are especially vulnerable to issues with body image, as their brains are still forming and what they see online can really stick with them. They are also still growing and developing physically. When conventionally attractive people are shown getting millions of views worth of attention, it can start to take a toll. The dangerous part comes when, conscious or not, a connection forms between looking a certain way and getting the attention that so many young people crave.
I interviewed four girls from BHS on their experiences using TikTok. They all brought up body image issues or unhealthy eating habits as something they had seen handled irresponsibly on the app. Alexandra Baird-Doughty, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), went as far as to say that she felt that “…they have an algorithm that pretty much blocks plus sized people.” She believes that this can be “really harmful.” In an article for NBC, author Sarah Kaufman stated that, “the app is particularly dangerous for people who are susceptible to an eating disorder relapse. Even if a minority of TikTok users experience this it is still an issue and an environment that tugs at these insecurities is not one that I want to recommend.”
Another quality of the app that could exacerbate these issues is its addictive nature. This is in part due to the app’s extremely entertaining content, making it hard to look away. While social media often comes under fire for getting people “hooked,” science tells us that there is a basis for this claim. A 2018 Harvard study compared social media to gambling with slot machines or using drugs like cocaine, in that they all affect the same reward centers of the brain. Specifically, TikTok uses a scroll feature, providing an essentially infinite amount of content. Its algorithm seems to have nailed a perfectly targeted feed that’s hard to escape and keeps us coming back for more. Among the students I talked to, multiple mentioned the app’s time sucking ability, or even it’s addictive qualities, which led some to periodically delete it. To make matters worse, the shelter-in-place order to combat COVID-19 only amplifies this by forcing teens into a situation where their social lives are primarily online. This has led to TikTok serving as a makeshift peer group, where group norms are developed and enforced within the community. With a bigger role in the lives of teenagers, the app can have the negative influence of peer pressure, with the distanced and anonymous nature of the internet. TikTok is a perfect storm for the spread and influence of problematic ideas and harmful standards. An app that is difficult to resist while simultaneously being a danger to mental health can cause a lot of damage to the teenage psyche.
All in all, while TikTok is entertaining, and can even have meaningful content at times, its negatives when it comes to body image and overuse cannot be ignored. The simplest way to avoid TikTok’s problems is to not download it in the first place. If it’s an app you already have that doesn’t improve your life, then why keep it? At the end of the day, it may just not be worth it.