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How TikTok Is Addictive

Psychological Impacts of TikTok’s Content Recommendation System

TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform in the world! Each month TikTok has 800 MILLION active users.

That is more active users than Twitter, Reddit, SnapChat, and Pinterest! Unlike these and other rival platforms, TikTok at its core recommends content.

Recommendations aren’t but a feature, they are what makes TikTok work! TikTok receives more engagement per user than Instagram and on average its users spend 52 minutes per day on the platform.

These are incredibly shocking statistics coming from a platform that begin in late 2016!

This article will explore how the TikTok recommendation algorithm works, the implications of such a system and what the goals that TikTok aims to accomplish by providing a platform that keeps its statistically young users so engaged.

TikTok is Unique

Many social platforms use some variation of a recommendation algorithm to provide accurate content that fit the historic behaviors of its users. To spare you the details, TikTok is able to recommend you videos by what you and others have watched.

If you watched the same TikTok as others, you are likely to be recommended the videos they have watched.

These algorithms are able to predict the preferences that you would give to a piece of content based on the activity of similar users to you.

There are many methods and varieties of these recommenders. If you are interested, an in depth description of YouTube’s algorithm can be found here.

Normally, social platforms provide you with more control first. What I mean by that is you get to decide what you do and do not see immediately as you enter the platform.

Take Instagram as an example, its central focus is to provide its users a photo and video sharing platform. You immediately are introduced to a feed of images and videos from individuals you chose to follow.

The section of the app to infinitely scroll through recommended images takes a backseat to the images and videos from those you chose follow.

The same is true historically from YouTube, and Facebook among other older social media.

However, TikTok is recommendation first.

As soon as you enter the platform you are hit with an infinite viewing experience of 15 second videos made predominately by young creators that you never chose to watch.

This makes the platform immediately stimulating. TikTok’s mission, as it claims, aims to “.. capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments, directly from the mobile phone. TikTok enables everyone to be a creator, and encourages users to share their passion and creative expression through their videos.”

Although users can and do provide such content, the consequences of how the platform operates should be subject to rigorous scrutiny. Why would a platform with such an initiative employ a recommendation first approach? Would that not support captivation over creativity?

If the platform aims to present creativity, knowledge and precious life moments, why is the content restricted to 15 second videos?

The Audience

A staggering 41% of self-reported TikTok users are aged 16–24yrs old. Since the platform is restricted to those aged 13yrs or older and from the sentiment of those who use or recognize the platform, it would not be surprising if the platform has a much larger younger audience.

Younger users are much more impressionable, and naive. It is easy to recognize the social dangers that occur when an open and auto recommended platform uses the viewing data of an impressionable audience to engage with its platform.

At the very least, this may manipulate a younger individuals perception of what is to be socially acceptable behavior and what are well formed beliefs.

This can be on issues of social and individual identity, and a distraction from accomplishing the crucial tasks requisite of them at such a formative age to engage with the passions that can lead to a flourishing life.

Furthermore, younger individuals may feel more obliged to engage with this platform. The more impressionable the user, the more they lack the control to disengage from the platform and the more data the platform has to accurately recommend these individuals appropriate content.

This effect spirals given that both the social demands and the improving content the platform provides, the more it is likely these users spend on TikTok.

A Cornell student of the name Niko Nguyen wrote an opinion piece about the their troubling experience with the platform. This is a quote from that piece:

“The majority of my past winter break was spent on TikTok, up until the moment when the app took its dying breath on my phone. But even when I wasn’t scrolling through the endless stream of cringe-worthy “Renegade” dances and entertaining life hacks I know I’ll never use, I started to notice TikTok everywhere I looked.

My group chats were constantly inundated by waves of TikToks my friends found funny. Scrolling through Instagram stories and Twitter — two social media platforms competing against TikTok — I found myself consuming the short-form videos outside of the app itself. Offline, when I was with my friends, we would reference TikToks, discuss TikToks, joke about TikToks, remake TikToks. It squirmed and squeezed its way into every corner of my social life.

In the blink of an eye, TikTok somehow dominated the social media industry, firmly planting itself into the culture of today’s youth.”

This speaks to the issues addressed here and adequately describe some of the sentiments many young individuals have of the platform. TikTok has also been accused of including harvesting user data and suppressing content made by queer, differently abled and fat creators. Which, if true, could have drastic social and personal effects on its impressionable and large audience.

How TikTok Affects Us

It is important to understand what is representative of addiction to stipulate if TikTok is addictive for you.

Common symptoms of addiction are; an inability to stop using, negative health effects, obsessive behavior and it is used to cope with outside problems.

TikTok may be addictive if the content provides enough stimulus for the users to exhibit addiction symptoms and a neurological reaction that is consistent with addiction.

What sort of content can be addictive? Content containing information, and especially it is short and captivating.

TikTok has a lot of information. Having access to relevant information can improve decision making. This is why new and relevant information are rewards for our brain.

Rewards are treated in the mid brain with a dopamine response just as an intake of foods high in sugar, fat and salt is. This is both true for the consumption, but also for the anticipation of such a reward. Interestingly, TikTok’s information is presented in a 15 second form.

This means that although the users do get well-recommended stimulating information, I am hard-pressed to believe that meaningful content can be adequately displayed in such a short amount of time.

Twitter has been scrutinized for its character limit for a very similar reason. It is simply difficult to convey adequately the view that you represent so quickly with such limited and distanced engagement.

This makes the platform more susceptible to the kinds of expected stimulus seen in addiction.

TikTok as a platform fulfills some of those requirements for addiction. The short videos provide us with relevant information that stimulate a dopamine response.

This process is constantly reinforced by consistently supplying us with more appropriately recommended videos.

What I would I also propose is TikTok allows viewers to engage intimately and anonymously with many content creators without being judged or feeling obliged to participate while giving users permission to judge.

This sense of connection, distant engagement, the ability to be anonymous and expressive with a stream of constantly relevant information and our recommendations being chosen for may serve as platform to develop an addiction.

As of yet, there are no direct mental disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for information/TikTok addiction.

What TikTok Does Well

Although I have been critical of TikTok, it is important of note that TikTok does provide a platform with advanced features for individuals to engage with and share in their creativity.

This platform helps individuals democratize their creativity. Are you a young painter struggling to present your talent to the world? If you present yourself well enough than perhaps TikTok will recommend you to millions.

Are you a comedian, yearning to have your jokes heard? Make them into 15 second videos and perhaps you can start a successful show from your phone. This holds true for dancers, singers, and many sorts of artists than can restrict there stories and art to the 15 seconds.

Although these social platforms are engaging, they can also be detrimental. If you are creative and recognize that this platform is an opportunity, it is important to understand that TikTok is enticing and has been criticized for having controversial content and restrictions.

It is important to be aware of the possible social pressures and personal consequences when making decisions about how you are engaging your talents and the use of your time.

The Attention Economy

These problems speak to a larger issue that is present with many large platforms using information and data as a commodity. The pressure for media companies to gain as much engagement for as long as possible is what is known as the Attention Economy. With its user base and a possible valuation of $100 billion in 2020, TikTok is quite up there with a large platform.

Your attention is scarce and is also desirable. Large platforms compete for attention as that allows them to generate revenue through advertisements, the selling of data, goods and services. Large platforms like Google, Facebook operate as a medium for others to create, buy and sell. This can be simply selling you a funny video, or a tangible commodity such as merchandise. For these companies to thrive they need to not only provide a well designed and working platform, but must habituate you to and ultimately make you dependent on the platform. Sites like YouTube do this so well as there no other website quite like it and the cost for creating a directly competitive platform is too high. You can learn something new with visual representation, engage with creators, get the latest news etc… all on one free and easily accessible website.

Many argue that the attention economy keeps us from doing the work that gives us meaning and a sense of purpose. The constant distracting notifications and endless carefully selected content controls us by manipulating our examined behavior. The consequence of this is that we never have to fully embrace our loneliness, sadness and poor sense of self but we also feel pushed to engage with things, that upon reflection, we should not have.


It may be said that TikTok could be a platform that is addictive to its consumers. If you enjoyed the read and have a critical and thought provoking response, feel free to share it in the comments and outvote the article as many times as you deem worthy!!



TikTok’s Mission statment:

TikTok’s statistics:

Source for ‘Midbrain Dopamine Neurons Signal Preference for Advance Information about Upcoming Rewards’ :


Cornell Student essay:

Accusations of data harvesting and content supression :


Imagine the future of data

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