TikTok’s impact on adolescent mental health

To ensure the healthy development of our youth, we need to meet them where they are at: on TikTok. TikTok has become the predominant social media platform when it comes to teenagers and young adults. It impacts their actions and has the capacity to become an addiction. 

According to Reuters, sixty percent of the TikTok users are between 16 and 24 years old. In terms of addictive tendencies, these recent statistics from Digiday show TikTok users in the United States open the app eight times a day and spend an average of 46 minutes logged in each day. According to this preliminary study from the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, United States university students show more internet addictive tendencies than their counterparts in other countries.

TikTok is mainly a site for youth culture, where viral video trends target teenagers and young adults. While this may seem harmless initially, the way the app’s algorithm, as described by research from Sun Yat-sen University, curates advertisements and content for specific users based on demographic data raises concerns. The constant use of this app may begin to alter the users’ mental health and exacerbate internet addiction.

Applications such as TikTok serve as a means for instant gratification, meaning someone can post a video or picture and expect a surplus amount of recognition. This can serve as beneficial because a person’s confidence and self-esteem will increase as they receive this attention and positive feedback. However, the sensation this creates in a person ends up becoming addictive. In particular, we witness young women posting more revealing or sexualized content with both positive and negative ramifications. They become compelled to find any way to surpass their previous post in likes and shares. Furthermore, when a person receives negative or no feedback, it can lead to deterioration in a person’s confidence and mental health. When social media apps like TikTok, begin to have this addictive, and subsequently depressive, effect on young adults, a change must be made. 

Is there a place for federal intervention?

Given the impact TikTok has on youth mental health, the federal government may want to intervene. As targeted advertising based on demographic data contributes to the addictive quality of TikTok, government regulations may serve to lessen consumerism as it shows up online. Does the government have a role to play in protecting our youth from social media addiction? Can we regulate how TikTok and similar social media services target audiences with curated content placement? 

The federal government’s concern about TikTok has not necessarily been youth mental health, but rather cybersecurity threats. TikTok, currently owned by ByteDance, is based out of China. On August 6th, 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order suggesting a prohibition of TikTok availability through the app store 45 days after the introduction of the order. He cited the use of data collection by the Chinese communist party through TikTok as a national security threat.

Furthermore, an additional August administrative order, led to a push for partial US ownership of the company, primarily through discussions about a joint deal with Oracle/Walmart. While these orders issued by Donald Trump were eventually struck down in court, the attempt to exercise control over TikTok’s undue influence on US culture has implications that extend beyond cybersecurity to the mental health of our youth.

Break up big tech

If the US were to have partial control over TikTok, we would be able to regulate the way in which users experience its harmful effects through the passage of the Break Up Big Tech Act of 2020. This act defines an exception to the immunity Section 230(c) of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that protects large technology companies from federal intervention. If, as stated in this act, an interactive computer service shows that it is designed to addict users, the federal government would have the right to intervene.

Generation Z, those born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, constitutes 60% of TikTok users according to Reuters. There exists mounting evidence that the interactive computer service TikTok has the capacity to become an addiction. To reign in the detrimental mental health impact of this application and others, we urge readers to support our efforts to break up big tech and ensure the healthy development of all our youth.

By: Sophia Jelsma and Nicholas Hamm, Master’s in Social Work students at University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dowark Peck School of Social Work

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