TikTok and the psychological effects on its users

Here’s What Psychologists Have to Say About TikTok

The popular app is fun and addictive, but it may also have some negatives effects on users, especially young people.
August 8, 2021
6 mins read

These days, TikTok is one of the most popular social media sites in the world. The app boasts a total of about 1.29 billion users globally, an impressive number considering it only launched in 2016. In fact, it would probably be more difficult to find someone who doesn’t use TikTok than someone who does.

TikTok is a platform for users to share short videos of trendy dances, comedy sketches and more. But many psychologists fear that the platform isn’t as innocent it seems. With a young user base that’s only increasing in size, the potentially harmful effects of TikTok are becoming too big to ignore.

Young User Base

Over the last five years, TikTok steadily gained popularity among young people. In fact, roughly half of TikTokers are younger than 34 years old. In a study conducted at Kingston University in London, researchers found that “Pre-adolescent groups were more active and heavier users of TikTok than were adolescents.” The study also concluded that “contributory behaviours were motivated by a wish to expand one’s social networks, by fame-seeking, self-expression and identity-creation needs.”

The data shows that young users look to social media platforms like TikTok to define themselves. And it’s important that the content they consume on the app allows them to express themselves in healthy ways. However, some experts worry that children growing up on the app are extra susceptible to the more toxic sides of TikTok.

TikTok’s Addictive Structure

One of the main concerns that psychologists have regarding TikTok is the potential for users to become dependent on the dopamine fix they get from the short videos. The structure of the app creates an addictive atmosphere that easily hooks its users.

As a recommendation-first platform, TikTok requires almost no thought. Other social media sites like Twitter and Instagram necessitate more consideration when it comes to what content you want to see. But TikTok removes that step. Therefore, the app enables TikTokers to become immersed in its content and spend more time watching videos.

Additionally, TikTok limits video length to three minutes or less. This means that the content on the app must be fast-paced and upbeat. This type of content, which is designed to quickly gain viewers’ attention, triggers a large release of dopamine. The more dopamine we receive, the more we crave, and TikTokers find themselves constantly coming back for more.

Researchers at the Institute of Psychology and Education at Ulm University studied the consequences of people spending prolonged amounts of time on TikTok. The study reported that “As a result of a prolonged user stay, social media companies obtain deep insights into psychological features of their users, which can be used for microtargeting purposes.” The cycle continues because TikTok makes accurate recommendations based on an algorithm that constantly improves itself. The continuous feedback loop makes the app all the more addictive.

Self-Esteem and Identity

Another common concern with TikTok is its effect on users’ self-esteem. The app was largely criticized for promoting unhealthy beauty standards and the inflated internet personas of its creators. These issues affect all TikTokers, but they disproportionately impact kids who learn to define themselves and their self-worth based on such false realities.

Psychologists at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research explored the effects of TikTok on a person’s identity, especially for the app’s younger users. They found that “social media applications serve as ideal social arenas for individuals who are attracted to engaging in ego-enhancing activities.”

For young people who don’t yet understand themselves, social media helps them feel connected to their peers. However, they might not understand that social media often features sensationalized and inaccurate representations of peoples’ lives. Thus, young people often find themselves struggling to live up to unattainable standards.

Because TikTok is so addictive for kids, they begin to lose perspective. “The definitions of ‘self’ and ‘environment’ are changed because the walls in between are converted into ‘mirrors.’” For young people, TikTok can create an echo chamber of unrealistic guidelines that they think they need to follow.

Safety Concerns

The addictive nature of TikTok combined with the false standards it promotes leads some experts to believe that the app can actually present safety hazards for users, especially children.

Another finding from the Jawaharlal Institute study is that social media addiction involves “an interaction of sensitized reward processing and cue-reactivity with diminished prefrontal inhibitory control.” In other words, the more gratification users get from TikTok, the less rational they will become in their decision-making. The result of such limited inhibitory control can cause TikTokers to do dangerous and shocking things. And it’s all in pursuit of the dopamine response that comes from likes and views.

Since TikTok is such an immersive platform, it changes users’ frames of reference for what is and isn’t safe. For example, the average person would probably know better than to try something called “the skull breaker challenge” — yes, that’s the name, and yes, people really did it anyway. But the more they see other people doing it — and sometimes getting rich and famous in the process — the more desensitized they become to the dangerous aspects of the trend.

Despite what psychology says, TikTok isn’t all bad. For many people, the app serves as a community where they can use their voices. For others, it’s simply a way to unwind after a long day by watching silly videos. As with all social media platforms, the important thing to keep in mind is that it’s just like any other kind of entertainment: It’s not real life. So keep enjoying TikTok, just as long as you don’t let it get to your head.

Elizabeth Dewit, University of Pittsburgh

Writer Profile

Elizabeth Dewit

University of Pittsburgh
English, French

Elizabeth is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in English and French. In addition to writing, Elizabeth loves cooking, traveling and music.

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