How the TikTok Algorithm Can Be Your Biggest Cyberbully

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The year 2020 was a tough one for everyone. The world was plagued not only with disease, but with a case of cabin fever unlike any other. Boredom swept the globe, and streets became desolate as we all sat, snug in our beds, with nothing to do but scroll mindlessly on our phones. Technology and social media became a form of escape for people of all ages, and for an app like TikTok, this was more than ideal. I was one of millions of teenagers at the time who downloaded the app to occupy my time during isolation. Flash forward to 2023, and TikTok is the one of the most popular apps by far. Its rapid rise to popularity during the pandemic has left a lasting impression, as there are officially over 1 billion users according to Wallaroo Media’s statistics as of Feb. 16. 

Like many social media platforms before, TikTok has become a strong community for its users. Very often on the app, people facilitate meaningful conversations, whether it be about the terrifying issues prominent in the world, or individual struggles. What started as a predominantly dance and humor centered app has shapeshifted into an online open forum, where people can share any opinion or experience that they want. During a year of sickness, political divide, economic struggles and more, this was extremely useful to many people, and it is a trend that has stuck around three years later. Scrolling through my For You Page, I see white blurbs of text layered over a trending sound way more often than I see happy people dancing around to a catchy song. 

While it is wonderful that we have created a space to express emotions and find others to relate to in times of adversity, it is important to recognize the flaws within the app that have become detrimental to mental health. This is because of the TikTok algorithm. 

The algorithm was a main contributor to the app’s sudden success. In short, it pays attention to what videos you as a user like or interact with, and in turn shows similar videos. However, this system does not always cater to your enjoyment. For me personally, it has had a major effect on my mindset. Let’s say that I am scrolling through my For You Page, and I see one of those white text videos of someone ranting about an issue that has been plaguing my mind. This could be a variety of things depending on the person: body image issues, anxiety, depression, etc. Great, I’ve found someone I can relate to! I like the video because I’m happy to find someone with similar struggles, and I also want to let them know that they’re not alone. Suddenly, the next time I open the app, my page is flooded with hundreds of videos about whatever I’m struggling with. It becomes all I am consuming, and all that I am talking about. 

This, to me, defeats the original purpose of the app: escapism. While it is important to confront the issues that have been stressors in our lives, we also can not let them consume us more than they already have. Our brains become full with dark clouds with no room for any other thoughts. It quite simply is not healthy. While a simple solution would be to delete the app, it can also be hard to leave behind the original fun and distraction that the app brought during a troubling time. It is like a toxic relationship that you just can not leave. 

It is important as the youth of the modern era to practice healthy media habits. To reject media as a whole is unnecessary, since it is so prominent in our livelihoods. For me personally, I find solace in music and writing. Focusing on creativity provides a distraction to fixate on in lieu of social media platforms. There are many existing alternatives that declutter the mind, and redirect your energy in a more positive light: exercising, reading, hanging out with friends, etc. 

As for alternatives for the sense of community, this can be hard to find. Media is safe for many because they are comfortable with anonymity. To this I say, do what makes you comfortable. Everyone has different needs, and perhaps space from media and time with yourself can help you become more familiar with yours.

No matter what, in a world where the internet rules our lives, healthy scrolling habits must become a form of self care as normalized as brushing your teeth. If you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of negative media, remember that the algorithm is designed to entertain you. If it is not accomplishing this, it is okay to take a break!

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