If you aren’t on TikTok, you likely know someone who is. The app reaches over 135 million TikTok users in the U.S. alone. To put that into perspective, that’s slightly less than half of our country’s total population. With a net worth of $50 billion according to Nasdaq, TikTok is the most downloaded app in the world.
Unlike other apps, however, TikTok’s notoriously addictive design and strategic algorithms have been incredibly successful at keeping users hooked. According to Wallaroo Media, users spend an average of 95 minutes per day on the app, opening it up about eight times daily. By comparison, Instagram users spend only 30 minutes per day, and Facebook users spend about 34 minutes, according to Insider Intelligence.
Unfortunately, studies have found that spending a lot of time on social media can have profoundly negative effects on mental health. In fact, according to Mental Health America, nearly 50 million Americans are struggling with mental illness, and 2.7 million of those are youth aged 12–17.
Could it be that while TikTok usage continues to rise, going from 655.9 million users in 2021 to a projected 1 billion by 2025, so too do our nation’s mental health concerns? Could the negative effects of TikTok and other social media platforms play a role? Experts think it might.
- TikTok directly or indirectly affects over 135 million Americans.
- Users aged 10–19 represent the largest portion of those on TikTok.
- TikTok users spend an average of 95 minutes per day on the app.
- 59% of users reported lower self-esteem after using TikTok.
- 2.7 million youth aged 12–17 currently have a mental illness.
6 Ways TikTok Negatively Affects Your Brain
Most social media platforms have identified ways to engage users. From a rotating array of new filters and features, like on Instagram, or collaborative content to meet evolving needs like on Calm, staying fresh is part of the game. While TikTok has mastered the technique of engagement, the benefits of such don’t always outweigh the cons. Here are the ways TikTok could be negatively affecting your mind.
1. Gives You Dopamine Hits to Get You Addicted
Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter in our brain that releases into our body when we do something enjoyable. It’s a feeling of reward that signals our body to repeat an action. It’s the reason why many of us can’t have just one cookie. Harvard Health explains that dopamine plays a vital role in one’s attention span, learning ability, mood, and sleep. However, dopamine is also the neurotransmitter responsible for reinforcing addictive behaviors, such as those associated with drug and alcohol abuse.
TikTok leverages this neurology to its advantage by ensuring that constant content gratification is always available to the user, resulting in content addiction called “TikTok brain.” As mental health expert Dr. Sheryl Ziegler explains, “When they’re looking through and they’re scrolling through these real quick videos, that’s what’s happening, they’re getting these dopamine hits that feel good just the way it does when people sometimes use drugs or they use alcohol.” This is what keeps users returning for more.
Negative symptoms of dopamine addiction, according to Dr. Ziegler:
- Increase in ADHD
- Shorter attention span
- Reduced ability to focus
- Disrupted sleep and wake pattern
As experts explain in an episode of Good Morning America, a new study shows when students saw “targeted videos tailored to their interests, certain sections of the brain involved in addiction were lit up; observably more than when shown a random sequence of videos.”
2. Keeps You Hooked by Design
Not only is the short, punchy nature of the content addicting, but so is the app’s design. Researchers at Frontiers Public Health say that TikTok’s unique “For You” page “learns quickly via artificial intelligence what users like, which likely results in longer TikTok use than a user intended, which may cause smartphone TikTok-related addictive behavior.”
When users create a profile, they’re prompted to select categories of interest for TikTok to make suggestions based on. However, according to Influencer Marketing Hub, the app’s algorithm also tracks viewing behavior for changes. If you start browsing political content, the algorithm will see that and adjust your “For You” content suggestions automatically.
Guillaume Chaslot, the founder of Algo Transparency, explains in an interview with The New York Times, “This system means that watch time is key. The algorithm tries to get people addicted rather than giving them what they really want.”
3. Increases Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression
Mental health issues in the U.S. are on the rise. A 2021 Mindshare report revealed that 81% of Gen Z employees and 68% of millennials cite mental health concerns as reasons for quitting their jobs. Further, 44% of employees lie about needing a mental health day.
There are many possible causes for this, but research involving 3,036 high school students drew a direct correlation between TikTok use and heightened symptoms of depression and anxiety. Male students, in particular, demonstrated higher levels of depression and anxiety than females.
Derek Johnson, a journalist for The Atlantic, explains in an interview with CBS News: “We now have lots and lots of research that suggests at least two things: Number one, we see rising rates of anxiety among young people in the U.S. and around the world, and number two, that increase seems extremely correlated not just with phone use, but with social media use.”
If left untreated, anxiety and depression can lead to a mental breakdown. To prevent this, read Having a Mental Breakdown? Learn Steps for Recovery and Prevention.
4. Decreases Your Memory Span
The same study that found a link between TikTok use and depression also linked the app’s use with memory loss. Another study, published in the National Library of Medicine additionally stated that daily app use has been linked to poor memory and overall cognitive functioning.
An example of how this can occur is by simply using your phone to take a picture or video of an event. When you use your device’s camera or social media app, you think it will help you remember the moment better. Studies have shown, however, that it has the opposite effect. As experts on The Doctors explain: “It’s called intentional disengagement. And so the idea is you’re so much more focused on the process of the picture . . . but your brain isn’t processing it as a memory.”
5. Reduces Your Self-Esteem and Confidence
Social media has become notorious for promoting unrealistic societal ideals, from body image to lifestyle. Ingesting constant messages to look or act a certain way, therefore, affects your confidence. For example, a study of 78 young TikTok users with eating disorders was done to see the app’s effect on their self-esteem. Of the 78 users, 59% reported having lower self-esteem after being on TikTok, particularly those who searched the hashtag “diet.” Further, 26.9% reported significant changes in their daily lives due to using TikTok.
Another study, published in the Indonesian Journal of Learning Studies, examined results more generally. Researchers discovered that 48.8% of their 41 teenage respondents reported feeling inferior after seeing the achievements of others on TikTok.
6. Stunts Your Emotional Intelligence
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) shares several potential ways digital interactions can negatively impact any age. One of these negative impacts is impaired people skills. NAMI explains that when most of our social interactions occur digitally, we may forget in-person social skills, which is part of exercising emotional intelligence. When we have good emotional intelligence, we can make better decisions, “read the room,” and pick up on subtle social cues. These skills, in turn, help us to foster trust and cultivate healthier relationships.
Conversely, according to PsychMechanics, those with low emotional intelligence have difficulty managing their emotions, forming authentic relationships, empathizing, and understanding how their actions affect others. When it comes to younger TikTok audiences, in particular, this is important because their brains are still developing until their mid-20s.
How Some Benefit From TikTok
Of course, social media apps can present many benefits when used appropriately. They can help you start a business, sell products, and learn new things. Most of us have likely used an idea or recipe we saw while scrolling through our TikTok feed. Or perhaps we discovered a new clothing line or skincare brand on social media. Ultimately, the benefits of social media are all in how you use it.
5 Other Unexpected Benefits of Using TikTok According to List 25
- It can aid in criminal investigations.
- It keeps us informed about the world.
- It exposes us to different points of view.
- It keeps us connected with friends and family far away.
- It helps us buy things we need and sell things we don’t.
TikTok and Business
From a business perspective, having an active presence on TikTok can also provide some benefits. As Digital Mums explains, many businesses are leveraging TikTok to reach that younger market of consumers that they may not be able to engage through traditional efforts.
TikTok has also proven to be an effective platform for accelerating musical careers. As Dempsey Hope, a Seattle-based songwriter who generated 300,000 album streams on TikTok, shared in an interview with Medium, “I started out posting 5–10 times a day, using a system of trial and error, and trusting that the audiences will tell me what they love.” Today, Hope has 265,985 monthly listeners on Spotify. Popular artists Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion are two other performers who got their big break from TikTok.
How to Find Balance on Social Media and Maintain Your Mental Health
Protecting your mental health requires an intentional lifestyle change. It requires acknowledging the difference between what society promotes and what you must promote for yourself. As psychiatrist and author David D. Burns says, “There is only one person who could ever make you happy, and that person is you.”
Tips for combatting the negative effects of TikTok:
- Limit time spent on social media: Choose small windows of time for social media that don’t interfere with other healthy habits. Practice discipline by only engaging during those set times.
- Embrace personal development: Practice journaling, learn a new skill, join a local volleyball team, or volunteer. These habits will force you down a new pathway, opening new opportunities and thought patterns.
- Get picky about the profiles you follow: If you’re following people on TikTok that are negative or unrealistic, unfollow them. Protect your mind by only ingesting messages that nurture it.
- Seek professional care: Acknowledge when it may be time to talk to someone. Visit MentalHealth.gov to find care near you.
Continue learning the negative effects of social media by reading, “Research Shows Social Media is Harming You.“
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