Self

Why TikTok Is Uniquely Addictive (And What To Do About It)

Photo: nikkimeel / Shutterstock
woman using tiktok app

TikTok’s slogan is “Make Your Day,” but the popular social media app can just as easily ruin your day or waste hours of your time if you let it. That’s because TikTok’s format and its secretive algorithms cause your brain to release powerful chemicals that keep you scrolling and watching.

Here’s how TikTok tricks your brain, saps hours of your time, and may even lead to addiction— and what you can do about it.

Your Brain on TikTok

To understand what makes TikTok so addictive, we first need to learn a little bit about the human brain. Our brains developed in a world filled with clear rewards and clear dangers. Noticing positive things (like a bush covered in yummy berries) or negative ones (like a saber-toothed tiger lurking in the shadows) was crucial to our survival as a species.

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Based on that history, our brains today still respond powerfully to both very good and bad things. When we see something positive, we get a little hit of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, our brain’s reward system. It feels great!

Conversely, our amygdalas light up when we experience something stressful or troubling. The amygdala handles many of our emotions and controls the fight or flight response that prepares us to face danger.

Social media apps like TikTok capitalize on our brains’ unique wiring. When you open TikTok, you immediately see a stream of videos. Some of these are enjoyable to watch — think videos of funny cats, a cool new dance move, or a sexy influencer in a swimsuit. These cause your brain to release dopamine, providing you a tiny, pleasurable reward.

Others are concerning or scary — you might see a car crash recorded by someone’s dash cam, footage of a street fight, or an expert talking about a mass shooting.

These kinds of videos light up your amygdala in much the same way as a horror movie or the real-life threats our ancestors encountered. Triggering the amygdala releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases your heart rate, causes you to sweat more, and can lead to weight gain and high blood pressure over time.

Digital Crack Cocaine

As social media apps go, TikTok is uniquely good at triggering these two powerful responses in your brain. Dr. Julie Albright, an expert on social media and the brain, calls the app “digital crack cocaine.” 

Why? First-generation social apps like YouTube focus on showing you long-form videos, where there’s plenty of time for an intro, story development, and deep discussions of a topic. Other apps like Facebook focus on showing you content from your friends and family members, drawing on your existing real-world connections to encourage engagement.

TikTok is different. Most TikTok videos are short, and the app is designed to play them in rapid succession. If you don’t like one, you can swipe away from it in an instant — in fact, most TikTok users watch a given video for only 3.3 seconds on average. The app also surfaces all kinds of videos from all kinds of creators, not just the ones you know personally. 

Let’s face it — on most days, your friends don’t do too many harrowing things. Because TikTok shows you videos from people you don’t know, you’re more likely to see extreme videos than on a platform like Facebook, which mostly shows your friends going to lunch or complaining about their job.

There’s also a random quality to TikTok. You can be watching a cute video of a chipmunk eating out of a person’s hand one moment (cue the dopamine), and a scary one about an ancient Japanese monster the next (hello, cortisol.) TikTok’s speed and variety mean that your brain is constantly ping-ponging between boredom, pleasure, and fear, depending on the videos the app chooses to show you.

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That randomness and rapid switching of emotional states, experts like Albright say, makes TikTok a lot like a slot machine.

The app engages something called “random reinforcement,” in which the unpredictable arrival of positive and negative outcomes keeps our brains — quite literally — hooked.

Random reinforcement is what causes gambling addicts to keep pulling the lever, hoping for a win. And experts say the same compulsive behaviors are what keep users scrolling through TikTok for hours on end, seeking that perfect video that will make them feel great.

That’s right — TikTok may literally be addictive. In fact, a recent study showed that heavy TikTok users experience many of the same negative outcomes as substance abusers, including stress, withdrawal, and relapse. 

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Even if you’re not a TikTok addict, using the app can still eat up loads of your free time. According to TechCrunch, the average TikTok user spends 75 minutes per day on the app. That’s time you’re not spending exercising, taking care of your kids, or being with your partner.

How to Fight Back

Here’s the good news. If you feel like your TikTok usage is getting excessive, there are plenty of things you can do to fight back and reclaim control over your time and your brain. 

Firstly, stop letting TikTok’s algorithm control your use of the app, sending your brain on a rollercoaster of dopamine highs and cortisol lows.

Rather than mindlessly scrolling from video to video, set an intention for what you’d like to see on TikTok, and then use the app’s search function to look for videos on that topic. For example, if you’re looking for dinner ideas, search “Healthy dinners” or “Fast weekday dinners” and click on videos that pique your interest.

Remember, the app’s algorithm will probably start directing you away from your original topic and to more extreme, engaging content. Don’t let it. Every time you notice yourself going down a rabbit hole of dancing influencers and crashing cars, return to the search function and go back to choosing videos for yourself, based on the topic you actually wanted to see.

Setting an intention and sticking with it puts you in the driver’s seat, robbing the app of its slot machine-like power. You still get to use TikTok to view content that inspires you, but you’re not letting some AI robot rule your choices and mess with your brain.

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Each day, you should also set a specific intention for how long you want to use the app. To TikTok’s credit, it makes this easy to do via its Digital Wellbeing settings. From the Digital Wellbeing menu, you can see how long you spend using TikTok, and set specific limits on your daily app usage. 

Start by finding the Summary tab, which shows how much time you currently spend on the app. Just seeing that number may be shocking enough to motivate you to cut back! Next, decide on a daily time limit, and enter it in the Daily Screen Time section. Try cutting back your usage by 10 minutes each day until you reach your goal number. 

If you find that you have trouble putting the app down even when you reach your screen time limit, have a loved one set a Screen Time Passcode for you.

If you reach your limit on a given day and want to keep using the app, you’ll have to ask them to enter the passcode for you. Social accountability is an important tool in fighting other kinds of addiction, and being accountable for your TikTok usage may help you cut back.

Finally, remember that excessive use of social media can be a warning sign for anxiety and depression.

If you feel like you’re using TikTok to avoid engaging with life or to drown out challenging emotions, you should reach out to your doctor, call a free mental health hotline like SAMHSA, find a trusted resource, or seek out a support group. Both anxiety and depression are treatable, and your excessive TikTok could be a symptom of these disorders, not their cause.

TikTok has exploded into its current spot as the #1 downloaded social media app in just a few short years. The app’s unique ability to take your brain on an emotional rollercoaster— and thus to keep you hooked for hours on end — is almost certainly a factor in its meteoric rise. 

TikTok can easily suck you in. But if you apply some common sense strategies to your TikTok use, you can take back control of your time, get your brain off its whirlwind cycle of dopamine and cortisol, and keep your eyes out for signs of depression or anxiety. Do these things right, and TikTok really can make your day — not ruin it.

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Thomas Smith is a writer, photographer, dad of three boys, and content consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also a trained neuroscientist. Smith writes about topics including social media, home tech, and the brain.

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