How to Save Teens From the TikTok Epidemic

Defenders of social media often highlight the positive aspects; They love Facebook because it let’s them connect with old friends and family members that live far away and they love Instagram because it lets them be inspired by athletes or interior designers. In the last decade, there has been more and more coverage on the other, negative, side of social media. The Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ highlights many of the concerns that progressively more people are having. The main concerns boil down to overusage, and even addiction, of the social medium.

There are many factors at play which contribute to the fact that so many people find it difficult to resist hours of scrolling through a social medium. A lot of these factors are simple design features. These often start out as an innocent innovation not meant to do any harm. In ‘The Social Dilemma’ Justin Rosentein, former engineer at Google and Facebook and inventor of Facebook’s ‘Like’ button, explains: “When we were making the like button, our entire motivation was, “Can we spread positivity and love in the world?” The idea that, fast-forward to today, teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough likes, or it could be leading to political polarization was nowhere on our radar”. This process of “accidentally” creating something addictive, and therefore malicious, is congruent on the creation of many different platforms or features within. The intention is often not evil, but eventually evolves to be so anyway. 

“When we were making the like button, our entire motivation was, “Can we spread positivity and love in the world?” The idea that, fast-forward to today, teens would be getting depressed when they don’t have enough likes, or it could be leading to political polarization was nowhere on our radar”

Justin Rosenstein in The social dillema

Nowadays the most prominent social media app, especially among the under-thirties, is TikTok. Originally released in China in 2016, it became massive across the globe in 2018. In 2020, TikTok counted 837 million monthly active users. That is almost 1 in 9 people using the app every month! Of course, this is not a problem in itself. Users are encouraged to dance, create, and be social. Talents can be showcased for free and be discovered in an accessible way. Besides entertainment, TikTok hosts many accounts of mental health experts and doctors. Children who do not feel accepted in their home situation can find comfort and a loving community in this on the app. Without even considering the other (damaging) sides of TikTok, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. The majority of the demographic of Tiktok users are teens, in fact 41 percent of TikTok users are aged between 16 and 24. Teens are notoriously good at instant gratification, especially in the fast paced world of Gen-Z. They are therefore extra sensitive to the addictive elements of social media. Especially combined with the Corona pandemic, where teens spend much more time at home alone, this addiction can become more and more prominent and, in some cases, debilitating or worse.

Why is a TikTok addiction a problem (for teens)?

A CNN study on social media usage found that kids, specifically 13 year olds, that checked social media 50 to 100 times a day were 37 percent more distressed than teens who did not. With the kids that checked more than 100 times, this goes up to 47 percent. A study by Harvard University found that posting on social media releases chemicals in the in the brain very similar to when taking other addictive substances, such as drugs or cigarettes. TikTok can therefore become a coping mechanism much like drugs or alcohol can. This overuse of the social medium can lead to many problems such as isolation, ignoring school or family responsibilities, physical health, and a gloomy mood. Since social media was being used as a coping mechanism, these problems will then likely increase the usage of the app. This therefore creates a cycle of social media misuse and personal problems.

What makes TikTok so addictive?

TikTok, like many of the other social media apps, has many addictive features. Like Facebook and Instagram, TikTok has unlimited scrolling. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, however, TikTok has unlimited content. There will always be a next video, which makes putting your phone down so much more difficult.

The content and duration of the videos on TikTok plays a big factor in users screen time on the app. The length of the videos range from 1 second to 3 minutes. This means that users only need a very short attention span for each new piece of information. The viewer does not have time to get bored and decide to close the app and go do something else. Furthermore, the content is heavily personalized based on your interaction. Interaction is not just the user’s physical actions such as liking and commenting, but is also much more subtle, amount of time spent looking at a video or someone’s account. This results in a page in which you can scroll through diverse short videos of subjects that are continuously intriguing.

If you have ever been to a casino, you have probably noticed the absence of clocks. Many casinos even take this a step further and eliminate all natural light. This is done to increase the chance that, possibly addicted, gamblers lose track of time, and in doing so, make more bets and, thereby, lose more money. This sounds quite sinister, but TikTok users a very similar tactic, but then to an even more unsuspecting audience, children. Upon opening the app, TikTok removes the top bar which means that, just as in the casinos, the user does not have direct access to the time. This also increases usage of the app and thereby the revenue for the company.

What is being done about it now?

Social media has been around for some time now and the problematic, addictive, issues have not gone unnoticed in popular and scientific press alike. This has resulted in various solutions that have been made available to counteract these addictive features. One example of such a solution is that the developers of TikTok have made an in-app feature that limits your time in the app. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, this should not be the end-goal. Improvements could include having this feature turned on automatically after having downloaded the app or, at least, forcing a pop-up after downloading which informs you of the feature. The minimum of this limiting screen-time feature is 40 minutes a day, this still a substantial amount to spend on one social media app. Especially considering that many users probably also use other social media apps daily. An improvement of this feature would be to let the user choose their screen time themselves without a minimum. Another solution that acts on a larger scale is including simular features in operating systems. Developers of operating systems of smartphones, such as Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) have been implementing features to aid against smartphone addiction in recent years. Android has a digital wellbeing application pre-installed to phones that includes parental controls and many features to monitor your smartphone usage and has functions to limit certain applications usage time. Some of the functions include: setting time limits for applications, a bedtime mode, a focus mode where you can pause distracting apps and hide their notifications, and a heads up feature. This is a reminder that comes up when you are walking with your phone that reminds to focus on your surrounding: “Use with caution. Heads Up doesn’t replace paying attention.” This text might seem funny when reading it for the first time, but it is a response to a very serious issue.The amount of accidents caused by people driving a vehicle, or even just walking, while using their phone is staggeringly high. It is probably for this reason that iPhones have also included very similar features in their systems (since IOS version 12),

These are some small steps that have been taken by companies that are driven by money. There are other, more influencial, actors that can initiate change to these addictive applications too. Legislative bodies, such as the government, can play a major part in the solution to this growing problem. For example by making laws to ensure that social media companies take counter-active measures.

In 2019, Senator Josh Hawley proposed a law to restrict addictive social media practices, the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART). This law limits features on social media platforms that may contribute to social media addiction. If this bill would be accepted, it would become illegal for social media companies to use infinite scroll, videos that autoplay, and techniques that reward users for repeated use of an application.

Around the same time, on the other side of the globe, laws had been already implemented to counteract technology abuse. China has created laws for the amount of time that minors (people under the age of 18) can spend playing video games: one hour per day on weekends and holidays. Soon after these rules were announced, the company ByteDance Ltd., which owns TikTok implemented restrictions for users under 14, allowed kids to use the platform for up to 40 minutes a day between 6am and 10pm. While it is questionable whether such a controlling law is reasonable in many European countries, it is important to measure and monitor the influence of these restrictions. Perhaps a more appropriate ‘European’ adaptation of a similar law could be very successful in counteracting social media addiction among teens.

Many social media applications feature a ‘kids mode’ which usually means a limited functionality of the application. The problem with this is that there is no real control over the age. This results in children simply filling in an appropriate age and being able to use the app with all the functionalities. This is an understandable lie since the limited functionality hinders the usage of the applications so much, it loses its attractiveness. Especially when your piers are enjoying the ‘adult version’, you can’t be left behind and will do the same. These ‘kids mode’ is therefore not as effective as it was intended to be.

Solutions to the TikTok epidemic

There are three main actors responsible for epidemic of TikTok addicted Teens: the parents, the government, and the companies that develop these applications. It is these actors that should be held responsible and could play a big part in the solution to this problem.

Parents need to check in on their kids more and teach them about the dangers of addiction and social media abuse. Ever since the turn of the century, kids get smartphones at a very young age. In fact, most kids ave a phone by the age of seven. Since most kids have them by the age of seven, kids who do not will feel left out and will feel left out. This is fine if they are taught on how to use a smart phone, and social media, responsibly and are aware about the possible dangers. This is not the solution that will fix it the problem in an instance. Adults are very susceptible to social media addiction as well, even if they are aware of the dangers of looking at a small screen for hours and sitting in the same position all day. A small step in the right direction would therefore be creating awareness. This would be most effective if done through government or municipalities.

The companies behind these social media applications are the second actor that could change this epidemic. As seen in ‘The Social Dilemma’ documentary, developers make addictive features into their applications to get as much attention from their users as possible. They are thereby competing with other apps for the user’s attention. Using psychology tricks to make an app as addictive as possible is a way to do this, and is done by many. Developers should make less use of these addictive features to be able to decrease this destructive and dangerous landscape of applications. This is easier said than done, companies need to earn money and will do everything to help increase profits. A developer of an application might have a moral compass and think: “maybe this is dangerous and should not be pursued as a new feature for this application”, but a sole developer can be replaced if the company is not satisfied with his work or resulting revenue. The problem lies with the system, and thereby the lawmakers. The government can make legislation that the companies are obliged to follow, such as age restrictions or not allowing addictive techniques in these applications. This is already happening in some parts of the world, such as in China or in the US with the proposed bill from Senator Josh Hawley mentioned previously. The problem is that these social media applications are accessible worldwide and most legislation is nationwide. A significant start to real change would be legislation from the EU. The influence of the EU and their regulations has been proven before. The GDPR is a good example of this.

One big aspect that most of these social media apps have is the an AI driven recommendation system. Combined with the unlimited scrolling and short attention span that is needed to consume this media, TikTok is extremely addictive. People constantly see refreshing content that they will enjoy. The regulations surrounding these addictive features need to be tackled. Especially the AI driven recommendation system needs to be regulated. People need to be able to choose to use this function and to what extent. The EU should propose a law similar to the bill that was proposed by Senator Josh Hawley, and enforce it to make sure that people are more aware, have the means to make their own decisions ,and will use these services responsibly. We need to take matters into our own hands and make sure people stop being slaves to the machines.

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