The time suck that is TikTok

Illustration of a person in bed, looking depressed and absorbed by their phone.
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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I can’t have TikTok downloaded on my phone at this point in time. I’ve become accustomed to the cycle of downloading and deleting the video-sharing app, as the urge to swipe through videos for a ludicrous amount of time on days that I don’t have any pressing tasks is strong. It makes me feel like I have a short circuit in my brain.

The app, which has grown to 53.3 million weekly users as of September 2020, has had an impressive year. When lockdowns began in March, people began recording themselves doing popular dances on the app as a way to pass the time during what felt like an endless quarantine. More and more young people gravitated toward the video platform, and soon the range of videos spanned from cooking to fashion to exercise. Currently, TikTok is number two under “Top Free Apps,” falling behind YouTube. 

Now that it has been about nine months since TikTok first started to gain traction, I feel my time being sucked away by an app that feels more like a distraction than a source of entertainment. I often encounter videos the algorithm thinks I would enjoy but actually end up leaving me more unfulfilled than I was before. The constant stream of content has the power to distort everyday reality — life has changed so much from what it was in 2019, and we all find ourselves spending more time in our homes with just our devices to keep us company.

It’s no secret that social media is addictive, and that’s probably the reason why I have trouble fully committing to leave the platform all together. “The Social Dilemma,” released by Netflix in January of this year, highlights the fact that social media is designed based on traits we have learned about the human psyche in order to keep people on their phones. While I saw the movie and have read my share about the “slot machine” effect, meaning that smartphones give you the same rush as the gambling machine, I still find it hard to say goodbye to TikTok.

I know it’s bad, but old habits die hard, especially when they find themselves ingrained into youth culture. According to the digital marketing agency Omnicore, 41% of TikTok users are in the 16-24 age group, and the average user spends about 52 minutes per day on the app. With videos that can span from 15-60 seconds, that is a lot of content. As a 21-year-old in that demographic, TikTok videos do find their way into casual conversation and even my Zoom classes, which makes the decision to delete the app weigh heavier on my mind. 

If I delete the app, I get a much needed break from the fast-paced world of superficial content, but when I don’t, I’m much more aware of what my fellow Generation Z friends are referencing in our group chat. My fear of missing out can at times override my knowledge of technology addiction, which in turn affects my mental health. 

What, then, do you do when you know an app is affecting you mentally but you don’t stop? I’m not blind to the fact that TikTok is unhealthy, but I also don’t want to completely lose touch with people my age. In 2020, it feels like one of the easiest ways to stay connected is to share videos and online experiences. People see each other in person much less often, and a friend is just one video away. 

That which is easy, however, rarely yields the more gratifying solution, and that’s something I’ve been learning when it comes to TikTok and social media in general. 

I think it’s time for me to hit the little red “X” button on the TikTok app once and for all and accept the fact that I don’t always need to be in the loop. I don’t always need to know what my friends are doing and sharing, nor do I need to be caught up in the rat race of TikTok. With that said, it’s not an easy choice, nor is it “natural.” The app is designed to be naturally addictive with its never ending waves of new content that are just a swipe away, and a page called “For you” that is specifically curated based on videos you’ve viewed in the past.

It will be a challenge, and I might redownload TikTok once again, but I’m tired of feeling caught in the middle of a social life and better mental health. TikTok is a time suck, and I want my time back. 

Contact Riley Palmer at [email protected].