How Tik Tok hooks (very) young people

Americans have become increasingly aware of the addictive effects that Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram have on young people. But we should all be even more concerned about Tik Tok, the English-language version of the signature app owned by China’s ByteDance company.

TikTok consists solely of catchy, fast-moving short videos– 60 seconds is considered a long one! These snappy little audiovisual productions make your FB or Instagram feed feel super-clunky by comparison. The wellness website “Exploring Your Mind” noted of Tik Tok last year: “It’s captivating. You find yourself almost instantly hooked.”

It’s also different from the older social-media sites in that, from the moment you join Tik Tok, what you see on your screen is dominated not by “content” from other users or hashtags you have chosen to look at but by content that Tik Tok’s algorithms have chosen “For You” (as they claim) from the site’s massive library of existing short videos. So by default you, the user, have very little control over what you see.

As with other social-media platforms, the site’s main algorithm tends to pull users into rabbit-holes of increasingly polarizing or toxic content. Tik Tok’s algorithm was analyzed in detail in this recent Wall Street Journal piece. Significantly, unlike the algorithms that the older social-media sites use to decide which content to show you, Tik Tok’s seems not to rely at all on any social interactions a particular post may have received– “Likes” or “Shares” or whatever. Instead, it relies solely on how long you have previously lingered on watching any particular type of content before you swipe up for the next video.

If you linger longer on a video, Tik Tok delivers you more and more content that is similar–or even more focused and extreme. After all, like all social-media companies, ByteDance’s main interest is to keep you on their site as long as possible so that advertisers connect with your eyeballs there, rather than anywhere else.

The “User Experience” of Tik Tok’s users thus often lacks even the veneer of social interaction that other sites offer. Also, because of the speedy and catchy-by-design nature of its content, Tik Tok delivers its toxic effects to young and vulnerable users much faster and more thoroughly than happens on, say, Youtube or Instagram.

The algorithms used by Tik Tok and its Chinese-language counterpart, Douyin, have been stunning successful. ByteDance is now the world’s largest privately owned company. In July, it reached a valuation of $425 billion– more than four times the valuation of the runner-up, Elon Musk’s Space X. Its founder and CEO Zhang Yiming has a net worth of about $45 billion. And the company continues to show super-speedy growth! In July 2021, it registered a 45% increase in active monthly users over the number in July 2020, while Facebook’s annual increase (June to June) was just 7%.

In Tik Tok’s Chinese homeland, the government has acted much faster than any U.S. jurisdiction to limit the access that youngsters have to potentially harmful virtual platforms of all kinds.

In late August, the country’s National Press and Publication Administration introduced a new rule limiting minors to three hours of online gaming per week, to be used only during weekends. The ByteDance company then seemingly tried to get ahead of Beijing’s concerns about young people’s online behavior. It tweaked its Douyin version of Tik Tok so that it automatically limits under-15 users to 40 minutes of daily use, to be accessed only during the day or evening.

Douyin, like the big Chinese gaming platform Tencent, has also tried to impose identity verification systems on its younger users, to try to prevent them using “Fake” accounts in order to skirt parental or governmental controls.

ByteDance and CEO Zhang are likely concerned about several aspects of the company’s relationship with the Beijing government right now. In July, they shelved their IPO plans indefinitely amid fears of a widening government crackdown on tech companies that had already prevented Alibaba’s Jack Ma from taking his company public.

Meantime, advertisers all around the world continue to flock to Tik Tok. This blog post by Christina Newberry provides advice to (generally smaller) advertisers on how to optimize their effectiveness on the app: “The TikTok algorithm bases recommendations on a user’s interactions with content on the app. What kind of interactions? Anything that offers clues about the kind of content the user likes, or doesn’t like.” Though she doesn’t seem as savvy as the WSJ’s large investigative team in understanding how Tik Tok measures this, she does offer this advice: “TikTok moves fast… The hook for your video needs to inspire viewers to stop scrolling. Grab attention and show the value of watching in the first seconds of your TikTok.”

And meantime, anorexia and other mental health disorders have been mushrooming among young people in the United States.

This page on the website of Mental Health America tracks the growth of eating disorders among young people. It notes that, “The average age of onset for eating disorders is 12- to 13-years-old, with eating disorder specialists reporting an increase in the diagnosis of children, some as young as five or six.”

The MHA page contains a very helpful section about the link between social media and eating disorders, with explanations of some of the hashtags like “pro-ana” or “thinspo” that are used by posters who’re aggressively promoting weight loss. But sadly, in the listing they give of the sites on which youngsters can get pulled into pro-anorexia (“pro-ana”) content, they don’t even mention Tik Tok, which seems to me to be one of the worst.

The MHA page notes that, “social media sites have made attempts to censor content that encourages eating disorders, but it can be difficult to prevent all of the content from getting through.” And some other reports, like this one, indicate that well-meaning attempts by sites like Tik Tok that aim to combat pro-anorexia content end up having the opposite effect… Sigh.

And this market-research company is there to tell us that the worldwide “Eating Disorder Market” will “Deliver Prominent Growth & Striking Opportunities… 2021-2028.”

Thank you, capitalism.

Americans need to know that Tik Tok is a strong presence in the lives of many of our young people and that by its design it can deliver toxicity to users of all ages much more speedily than the older online platforms. Parents, caregivers, communities, and legislators all need to increase our understanding of these dangers.

We need to impose realistic limits on young people’s access to Tik Tok and similar sites. We need to hold the company accountable for its behavior and its choice of algorithms– and to invest in providing the kinds of activities to young people that give them a “natural high” and reduce their recourse to self-destructive behaviors.

(Regarding Tik Tok, I did a quick search for two anorexia-related tags there today, “proana” and “thinspo”; and both times it sent me straight to the contact details for the National Eating Disorder Association. That’s a good first step. But youngsters are inventive in developing new hashtags or fake accounts. The company, and all the rest of us, need to do a lot more… And no, I did not end up in any way “addicted” to the site.)