How we are 'literally' being brainwashed

By [email protected] | Mar 01, 2022

By Nadia Hussain (16, Regent's High School)

The app ‘TikTok’ is rising to success. It is averaging around 50 minutes of usage a day throughout its fan base composed of over a billion people. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves: is this more than just a harmless dancing app?

We’ve all been there before. You have an abundance of work to complete but for some reason, you decide it is the perfect time to scroll a bit on TikTok. ‘It’s only a few 15 second videos, I’ll start my work when it’s 1:00 instead of 12:47,’ you tell yourself. Yet after what seems like a mere number of minutes, you find yourself wondering if you’ve time travelled because it’s suddenly dark outside. Your hours appear to have vanished.

But how does the time pass by so fast when we’re on TikTok? Why do our brains steer us towards opening TikTok in the first place? And why does this happen every day, as if we don’t learnt from our mistakes? Well, the answer may not be as simple as we think: it all links back to one magic chemical - dopamine.

In September 2016, Chinese tech giant ByteDance released a ‘video-sharing social networking service’ under the name ‘Douyin’. The app became somewhat successful in East Asian countries (not including China). In 2017, the app was renamed as the ‘TikTok,’ the app we know and love because of its international appeal. Later on in that year, TikTok purchased one of its rivals, ‘Musical.ly’, for $800 million and transferred its 200 million Music.ly accounts into TikTok accounts. The video sharing app has (clearly) been a massive hit since then, achieving the title of most downloaded app of 2021, and its users are still growing with 1.2 billion active users at the end of 2021.

But there’s a reason why many of its users would much rather scroll on this app described as a ‘dopamine factory’ instead of reading a book or going for a walk.

Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter - in simple terms, a ‘feel-good’ chemical - released when doing activities which pleasure you. These are activities such as eating a food you’ve been craving or going shopping. Dopamine also stimulates the person to seek out more of these same pleasurable activities. Natural levels of dopamine are essential in ensuring that a person’s general mental health is in good condition; however, its stimulating nature is to blame for addiction and substance abuse. TikTok is just another example of this.

TikTok has been compared a Vegas slot machine: there are some videos which hit the perfect spot, releasing the sought after shot of dopamine, satisfying the brain for a few short seconds; however, there are other videos which don’t quite have the same effect and are easier to scroll past. Similar to the idea of gambling; you win some, you lose some. This is known as differentiation. So, when the brain experiences the hit of dopamine, it instantly craves more, and this is what leads to the endless scrolling, searching for the perfect video to pleasure the brain. Unsurprisingly, when you receive an overdose of dopamine, other activities, such as the work you so desperately need to get done, suddenly become much less appealing and less of a priority. And this is what TikTok relies on.

Of course, there are strategic ploys which TikTok implements in order to keep people feeding into their irresistible concept--it’s no lucky coincidence. For example, the fact there is a continuous stream of videos makes it so easy to carry on scrolling--there’s no limit; the app is almost impossible to delete as you risk losing all your precious drafts; and as you keep on watching, TikTok keeps on collecting data about you so it can manipulate the algorithm into giving you the exact content you need to continue scrolling. It’s an endless cycle. In addition, the short videos (between only 15 seconds and 3 minutes long) allow us to effortlessly convince ourselves that ‘there’s no harm, only one more video,’ as well as permanently destroying our attention spans. This is why, when you do finally manage to get off TikTok to get some work done, you can’t seem to focus. The idea of a new topic, new content, new entertainment available every 15 seconds means your brain gets accustomed to the fast-paced consumption of new material and easily forgets the last video it just watched. Consequently, you may find it much harder to engage in an hour-long activity such as getting a biology homework done. In fact, studies have shown that ‘watching TikTok for long periods of time can negatively affect your short-term memory, attention and concentration’. This, coupled with demographics of users (young and developing children make up a large portion of TikTok’s user base), suggest that the app could have a dire impact on the health of future generations’ brains.

This is added to the long list of concerns already associated with social media--inappropriate content, data privacy issues and concerns, and the risk of cyberbullying just to name a few. It is clear that TikTok is a toxic and detrimental app, and it should definitely be kept away from kids if not those in older generations, such as tweens, as well.

In summary, whilst TikTok may appear to be no more than a light-hearted, lip-syncing app at first glance, it is in fact dangerous and damaging, described as ‘hypnotic’ and ‘digital cocaine’ and its effects should not be underestimated. Next time you get the urge to pick up your phone and click on the familiar pink and blue music note, perhaps opt for a different alternative such as reading a book or having a conversation with your friends and family. It will do you good in the long term.