There’s no doubt about it – TikTok is pretty addictive. When I asked a sixteen-year-old colleague about her screen time, she told me she spends 25 hours on TikTok in a week. A whole day and night in a week. But what makes this app so popular? And why do people spend more and more time on it?
A sixteen-year-old colleague spends 25 hours a week on TikTok, a whole day and night.
During my master Leisure & Tourism I was assigned to write a paper about ‘new media’. Since I have such a fascination for the addictive effect of TikTok, I decided to delve into it. I myself can totally forget the time when scrolling through TikTok, but 25 hours?
A few facts about TikTok:
- In general, all social media platforms have seen an increase in monthly users since the pandemic, but TikTok in particular had an exponential growth, with 508 million users in December 2019 to 1 billion active users in September 2021 (Anderson, 2021).
- What stood out in Anderson’s research is that TikTok is able to engage people for a long time. TikTok therefore surpassed Facebook with the highest monthly usage.
- According to research by Yang and Zilberg (2020), the app was overused, all participants spent more than an hour a day on TikTok.
- The use of TikTok in combination with other platforms showed a significantly higher risk of addiction than young people who did not use TikTok according to Marengo and colleagues (2021).
The addictive ‘For You Page
One reason for this high engagement is TikTok’s well-designed algorithm that sets the app apart from other platforms. The algorithm learns from liking and sharing behavior, but also tracks whether a video is watched to the end or even watched repeatedly. With all this information, TikTok can give current interests per person, creating a personalized ‘For You Page’. The For You Page is the personal feed for a TikTok user in which videos are shown, which is therefore always unique for each user.
I myself occasionally find it scary how accurately the For You Page predicts my life, including my almost nonexistent love life: Just a few months ago, my For You Page was all about how all men suck. In the summer, it turned to videos about couples in love. During fall, since I moved to New York, it morphed into how to deal with a long-distance “situationship,” as Gen Z calls it from now on. In the winter I was back to videos about why it’s best to stay single.
What makes TikTok so addictive?
An algorithm that adapts exactly to what you are going through at that moment sounds like music to your ears, at least that is debatable if you are going through a rough period. Let’s find out what makes TikTok so addictive. Although not much scientific research has been done yet, Scherr and Wang (2021) investigated what motivates users in China to spend so much time on the app. They found four motives: novelty, socially rewarding self-presentation, trendiness, and escapist addiction.
Novelty is the most relevant motive for TikTok usage, as experiencing something new has driven the popularity of social media since its inception (Scherr & Wang, 2021). And on TikTok, things are happening faster than ever. Did you know that Gen-Z’ers occasionally laugh at you when you show them a video on Facebook that had gone viral on TikTok weeks before?
2 Socially rewarding
On TikTok it doesn’t matter if you have a lot of followers or not, everyone has the chance to go viral with a video. Why we humans attach so much value to going viral is another interesting topic, but how much we like to get a lot of likes, comments and followers. And how nice is a platform that makes it so incredibly easy. According to Meng and Leung (2021), it is mostly narcissists and extroverts who are most likely to be addicted to creating content on TikTok.
The third motif that makes TikTok so addictive is due to a word the new generation runs into a little too often: FOMO. According to Roberts and David (2021), people who experience high FOMO are afraid that others are having experiences while they are absent and therefore want to stay in constant contact. After all, you might just see the video in which Harry Styles spits on one of his colleagues later than your friends.
@popbase The internet believe that #harrystyles spit on #chrispine at the #dontworrydarling premiere. #venezia79 #venicefilmfestival #fyp #foryou #popculture #film ♬ original sound – Pop Base
4 Escapist addiction
Finally, escapist addiction refers to people’s need to escape from unpleasant moments in life through online media. Escapism is one of the reasons why TikTok users, mostly young and female (Scherr & Wang, 2021), are unable to stop using the app. The high dopamine levels you get from watching half an hour of videos on TikTok are hard to match in real life.
The addictive layout of TikTok
Yang and Zilberg (2020) describe a number of factors that make it easy to escape in TikTok:
- Using the entire surface of your screen makes it hard to ignore the video, which starts playing immediately when you open the app. This also involves narrative transportation, when you are immediately sucked into a story.
- The scrolling feature is so easy, that it has become an unconscious habit to keep scrolling, even if the user has no strong desire to continue watching.
- The short length of the videos allows users to get instant gratification in seconds and feeds their dopamine levels.
- This combined with an algorithm that knows exactly what you want to see is therefore dangerous.
What are the negative consequences?
Despite the fact that TikTok has already adapted many features since the surge in usage, such as restrictions for younger users, increased monitoring of harmful content, and focus on preventing the spread of conspiracy theories and other misinformation (Anderson, 2021), its addictive nature certainly continues to have its downside.
Scherr & Wang’s (2021) study found that sleep time often takes the brunt of excessive use on TikTok. Most users reported using the app late in the evening and late at night. Which I also recognize, I start my day with TikTok and I go to bed with TikTok. Occasionally a little too late.
Additionally, I personally notice a huge difference in my concentration span and an increased difficulty in getting equivalent dopamine levels from anywhere else. The video below explains more about what causes and effects of this overuse (unfortunately no scientific source):
Now, this article is fairly critical and negative, but I haven’t talked about what valuable communities are created on TikTok, how much you can learn from the platform, what great marketing opportunities we miss and how it also makes for a lot of fun. I am an absolute fan of TikTok, perhaps also influenced by my addiction, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Still nice to see the other side for once.
What do you guys think, is this addictiveness going to be problematic? And should we fight it or just learn to live with it?
Anderson, K. E. (2021). Getting acquainted with social networks and apps: talking about TikTok. Library Hi Tech News.
Lin C.A., Atkin D.J. (2021) Social Media and Leisure. In: Maggino F. (eds) Encyclopedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research.
Meng, K. S., & Leung, L. (2021). Factors influencing TikTok engagement behaviors in China: An examination of gratifications sought, narcissism, and the Big Five personality traits. Telecommunications Policy, 45(7), 102172.
Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2020). The Social media party: fear of missing out (FoMO), social media intensity, connection, and well-being. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 36(4), 386-392.
Scherr, S., & Wang, K. (2021). Explaining the success of social media with gratification niches: Motivations behind daytime, nighttime, and active use of TikTok in China. Computers in Human Behavior, 106893.
Yang, Y., & Zilberg, I. E. (2020). Understanding Young Adults’ TikTok Usage.