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  • Amy Norton

TikTok- Stolen Time

Amy Norton discusses the negative effects TikTok has on our mental health and productivity levels, suggesting ways that we can gain control back:

Artwork by Mariam Tovmasian (IG: @tomwunderbar).

Was lowering your screen time on your list of resolutions this year? Me too. I think we’re all tired of being embarrassed by those statistics. When I break it down, I’m never shocked by the culprit of the most damage: TikTok. My relationship with this app has always been a love-hate one, I’ve lost count of the number of times it has yo-yoed on and off of my phone. Each time telling myself that moving it into a hidden folder or setting time limits is going to help, TikTok always wins. So where does the app’s power come from? What exactly is causing the problem here, and what can we do about it?

TikTok has been cleverly designed to be a productivity vacuum. The ‘For You’ page presents us with a never-ending curated stream of bite sized content to absorb. A ten second clip turns into hours and suddenly it’s dark outside. TikTok works in the same way that slot machines do: you scroll until you experience that dopamine hit of a video you like, and then you scroll again. In psychological terms, it’s known as ‘random reinforcement’, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Either way you end up stuck in this unpredictable rewards cycle, a dopamine loop. Even when you eventually break free and go off the app, your brain begins to crave that pattern again and so you click back onto it throughout the day in order to satisfy it.

For absolutely minimal effort, TikTok can be a hilarious, educational, and sociable experience. But are we in control? We know how easy it is to waste time on this app, it can put us in an almost hypnotic state where the sense of time passing seems warped. Sometimes, despite my full awareness of the minutes slipping through my fingers I can't seem to move, I’m stuck. This stolen time takes away opportunities for hobbies you might have once enjoyed. I think I move my book around my flat with the intention to read it more than I actually open the front cover. Even with the knowledge of my eaten-away hours on TikTok, I’m guilty of complaining about my lack of time to complete tasks. It can be difficult to hold yourself responsible and imagine what you could have done with those hours. Frequent users of TikTok would most likely agree that the app’s short and snappy videos have lowered their attention span. If we can't sit through a movie without scrolling, we’re certainly going to struggle staying focussed during a lecture– not ideal.

Whilst TikTok’s sensitive algorithm can provide us with entertainment tailored to us, it can also repetitively show us content detrimental to our mental health. Our decision to simply watch a video to the end is enough to inform TikTok we want to see more like it. I know I have found myself in the past doom-scrolling through personally emotionally triggering videos, because TikTok delivered them especially to me. Instances like this can quickly cause depressive feelings and anxiety. It’s great that people are encouraged and feel comfortable enough to share very intimate and–more often than not–intense stories, but it can be overwhelming as a viewer. Our brains are just not used to being confronted with the sheer amount of varied content in one sitting. All that time spent viewing snippets of other people’s lives causes us to reflect on our own and typically in a critical way. We start to compare so many aspects of ourselves with what we see online, until our self-image becomes distorted from reality.

Enough of the doom and gloom, what can we do about it? If you are somebody who feels like you have your TikTok usage under control already, firstly congratulations, and secondly this might still apply to you. I think it’s important to notice the way you feel when you are on the app, and how it makes you feel afterwards. Does spending a chunk of time scrolling make you feel better, or worse? If the answer is worse, then it is time to get a hold on it. I’m not suggesting everybody deletes TikTok, it’s worth trying to manage your experience using the app before resulting to that. Set time limits on your phone and press the “not interested” button to limit seeing content that you find triggering. Check in with yourself every now and then and remember that TikTok can function like every other social media: it is a highlight reel of people’s lives. So don’t waste your emotional energy on forming comparisons. But if this still isn’t working and you have been meaning to delete TikTok–then this is your sign, do it now! Then notice how life without the app makes you feel and what you manage to achieve. I think you’ll forget about it quicker than you might think.

There are lots of other ways to increase dopamine– the mood-boosting chemical in our brains. Sleep is important, so replace scrolling on TikTok in the evenings with a healthier hobby that helps you wind down properly. As well as this, things like listening to music, interacting with people in real life, exercise and time spent outdoors all release dopamine. Taking part in any of these activities will leave you feeling more present, happier, and less embarrassed by those screen time statistics.


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