Who hasn’t heard of TikTok? It is a highly popular 15-second video app that hosts homemade videos showcasing comedy to lip syncs to dance moves and dog grooming tips. The uneven, goofy and fast-paced content has young audiences hooked around the globe.
This app is different from the rest of the social media platforms such as Facebook, Netflix, Spotify and YouTube. Instead of recommending content based on viewer habits, it uses powerful AI to make a very precise match with the users. TikTok’s algorithms decide which videos to show its users; it dictates their feed entirely and directly and learns their preferences the more they use it.
A big reason for TikTok’s ascent is the inroads it has made in India among her young and mobile-savvy population. There have been more than 611 million downloads of this app in India until the March 2023. As per TikTok user statistics (2023) one-third of all smartphone users in India have downloaded TikTok. This soaring popularity has also brought scrutiny and censor. TikTok was banned by the Indian government in June 2020 over national security concerns. It is an open secret that vast amounts of personal data of Indian TikTok users remains widely accessible to its company employees. There is the real threat of this demographic data, particularly that of GenZ’s userbase, of being misused to target advertising and political manipulation. In a telling move, on this Feb 10, TikTok sacked its entire India staff of about 40 employees. These regulatory challenges notwithstanding, ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok continues to build an empire of apps for the new generation that pushes the traditional notion of digital content.
What is it about the working of this app and others like it e.g., Instagram, Thriller, Chingari, Takatak and Moj that deserves the attention of parents, teachers and others involved with the care of our young? Recent research by the corporate accountability group Ekō (https://www.eko.org) published in March 2023 reveals that as soon as some of TikTok’s youngest users sign up for new accounts, the platform’s powerful algorithm swings into action. It takes as little as 10 minutes and just about three clicks for its algorithm to think it knows what the user wants to see. The “For You” pages of new accounts begin to fill up with problematic content, including self-harm ideas and videos glorifying violence. While young girls may be bombarded by content on unhealthy body image and eating disorders, young boys will likely find highly misogynistic and oftentimes violent content. This trend is being linked back to the tide of mental health crisis swamping children and teens today. In other words, social platforms are sending our young down rabbit holes. This can many a times, spiral out of control, leading to dire consequences.
The decade gone by has seen rocketing rates of depression, anxiety and feelings of persistent sadness and hopelessness among children. The American Psychological Association (APA) has noted the contributing role of social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat in this mental health crisis. It has been pointed out that the developmental stage of children renders them particularly vulnerable to the pressures of social media. Their brains are wired to seek attention and approval from their peers.
It is important to understand that the app is designed for endless scrolling. How exactly do the short and engaging videos impact teenagers and the young? More time spent on TikTok has been correlated with greater distraction in class. Not only are the students likely to lose track of time while scrolling, but their learning also gets adversely affected. They are not able to multitask with TikTok and that affects their productivity in the long run. They may enter a “flow state” while on the app, losing track of time and suffering from what is known as the planning fallacy wherein the time needed to complete a task is typically underestimated. An excessive screen time moreover has been associated with lower levels of curiosity, self-control, and emotional stability. Consistent use of TikTok may lead to a dependence on it for instant satisfaction, diluting their ability to delay gratification that is essential for achieving long-term goals.
This is not exactly a revelation given that the business model all major social media platforms are based upon is to keep users hooked as long as possible so that the maximum user data can be collected for use in targeting advertisements. TikTok, as a matter of fact, has fast become the social media ‘home’ of kids. The platform now has over 1 billion monthly users, a third of whom are estimated to be under 14 years of age. And yet, we know very little about TikTok’s algorithm or its recommendation system that serves up curated content to such a vast range of young consumers. In fact, much of this content breaches the company’s own community guidelines.
TikTok’s own attempts to address these concerns have been inadequate. The recent announcement that there would be an automatic one-hour screen time limit on accounts of users under 18 years is a feature that can be turned off easily. TikTok’s manipulative algorithms have had policymakers, civil society, and whistleblowers calling for tough new laws to rein in the Tech Titans. A business model that profits from pathological content and drives a disinformation crisis does not have a place in civil society. There is need to create an awareness of the nuances involved here. Our young need a stout advocacy of age-appropriate design codes as also greater transparency on recommender systems. The opaque fog around online advertising must clear up as also risk assessment by platforms with regards to public health and gender-based violence.
TikTok is facing bans from several quarters around the globe. These range from blocking the company from selling advertisements to making system updates. But no one seems to be clear on the exact mechanism for doing so on a privately owned phone. To protect your privacy on TikTok, it is best not to give the app permission to access your location and contacts. Another self-preservation protocol could be to watch TikTok videos without opening an account.
There is no denying that TikTok is used by the young to unwind. The challenge, however, is in learning to balance between social media use and maintaining wholesome study habits. Our young deserve better.
The author is a Generational Diversity Speaker, having written four generational books and spoken at three global conventions on the subject. A certified virtual presenter, she uses her 37 years in media and education to help harness generational diversity at work and at home. A TEDx speaker, she represents the Professional Speakers Association of India (psai.in) on the Global Speakers Federation Board
(https://www.globalspeakersfederation.net/). She can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/neerja-singh/.