tik tok: good for a laugh, terrible for mental health
maybe i lived under a rock, but i definitely wasn’t the only one who only hopped on tik tok as a way to kill time during quarantine. unlike instagram and snapchat, which i grew up alongside throughout middle and high school, i first encountered tik tok through 20-year-old eyes. and while it might seem that not much separates 14 from 20, a decent amount of growth happens during that time, and with that growth comes self-awareness. perspective. a knowledge of self that i know for a fact i didn’t have my freshman year of high school (my freshman year of college, even). i am not trying to make myself seem older and wiser than i am—if anything, my still very-apparent youth and inexperience only highlights my point, which is that it worries me to my core what an app like this will do to the generation growing up alongside it.
social media in general gets a bad rap for breeding comparison and self-criticism among its users. numerous studies have come out showing the potentially negative affects of social media on mental health and self-worth. it’s often said that social media is a highlight reel, portraying an unrealistic ideal of the life we’d all like to lead, in turn fostering FOMO and insecurity.
to me, tik tok is all of the worst parts of social media on steroids. instead of the implicit comparison game played on instagram and snapchat, tik tok trends literally call people out for “hot boyfriend checks” or audio clips encouraging users to flaunt their multi-million dollar houses, for example. these kinds of videos are people explicitly showing off what others might not have. there is no context to these videos either, just a one-sentence caption and maybe a link in their profile being the only backstory provided to the video they’re seeing.
if that wasn’t damaging enough to a young, developing teenage brain already predisposed to insecurity, there seems to be no sort of screening in place for harmful content on the app. when i first downloaded tik tok, the app’s algorithm flooded my “for you” page with exercise routines, weight loss “what i eat in a day” videos, and clips of picture-perfect girls doing dance trends. the app went off my age and gender and generated these as the types of videos it thought i would like to see. now, i’d downloaded the app hoping to find a vine 2.0 (stupid videos that make me snort-laugh), so this kind of content was incredibly unwelcome. it took a couple days of dedicated scrolling and filtering through my page by clicking “not interested” on any one of these weight loss videos before they finally stopped showing up in my feed.
this brings me back to the point i made earlier about the self-knowledge and self-awareness i’ve gained in the last year. i know myself and what kind of content is triggering to me, so i know to avoid it. the temptation to compare, to map what i ate in a day to what is shown in some 30-second clip, or to amp up my workouts to match what some fitness influencer posted, is there, no doubt. i also know that giving into that impulse would only lead to self-destructive behaviors. that is something i learned only after falling down a similar rabbit hole on instagram, developing an eating disorder, and going through the subsequent therapy sessions required to recover.
part of that therapy was cleaning out my social media of any content that encouraged disordered behavior in one way or another. the thing was, as my disorder progressed and in the thick of the disease, i didn’t see anything wrong with these accounts or notice the way that kind of content affected me. this is my fear with tik tok—mental illness is a slippery slope. these girls (and boys) downloading this app at 11 or 12 and having it as their constant companion all throughout middle and high school won’t realize the effect it’s having on them before the damage is already done.
the algorithm will take into account their age demographic and show them the kinds of videos that i saw, and they will learn to prioritize calories and weight loss, that smaller is better, that daily ab workouts and a flat tummy are the most important things. they will think that all girls look like the ones on their “for you” page with whittled waists and bright white teeth, perfect eyebrows and perfect skin.
the time i spent in middle and high school in my “awkward phase”, utterly oblivious to how strange i looked (crocs and choker and all) but happy and confident all the same, wearing bermuda shorts and braces and eating milkshakes and fries by the pool in the summer, will be taken away from them. they will be conditioned to be self-conscious of their body and the calories they consume from an earlier and earlier age, and that youthful innocence characteristic of that awkward phase stolen.
what kind of app allows 15-year-olds to post weight loss videos? what kind of culture does that breed? intermixed with the videos that do make me snort-laugh is the dark underbelly of the app, clips that highlight girls eating 750 calories in a day and having the audacity to call it balanced. while i know that's unhealthy, younger kids on the app might not have that perspective. any social media requires vigilance and intentionality to make it a positive, healthy space, and knowing yourself well enough to take that initiative takes time. it takes growing up. and that is exactly what this app has the potential to take away from its users.
i don’t really know how to combat this, how to avoid a generation of impressionable kids developing inferiority complexes and eating disorders and who knows what else from years spent digesting content portraying unattainable and unhealthy ideals. at the very least, we can start a conversation. we can combat the rampant misinformation on the app that prioritizes dieting and appearances and low-calories swaps by taking care of those in our lives. we can show them what a balanced life looks like, that a full life is so much more than a six pack and detox teas. the last thing i would ever want, as i’m sure anyone who’s experienced this kind of illness, is for someone to make the same mistakes i did, least of all my little sister. it’s hard to put into words how sad it makes me to think of another generation of girls falling into the same trap so many of us already have, but it provides that much more incentive to combat the potentially damaging effects apps like tik tok can have.
maybe this is just me being melodramatic and overthinking an app meant to make people laugh--but on the chance that it's not (which i believe is pretty high) i felt something needed to be said.