Elizabeth Peppercorn: The dark side of TikTok

Sunday, May 10, 2020 - 4:15pm

Quarantine has left millions of teenagers, including myself, in search of ways to fill their time while socially distancing. Some have turned to painting, Zoom calls, cooking or learning to play new instruments. However, one of the most popular ways young people are escaping boredom is through the social media platform TikTok. With endlessly entertaining minute-long clips, it is easy to lose track of time on the app. While it can be a fun and creative platform, it can be extremely dangerous for mental health and body image, especially with such a young audience. 

“In terms of its difference from other social media, it does not stop,” LSA sophomore Shubhum Giroti said. “On Instagram or Facebook, you follow what you follow and then at some point, you reach repeated content and get off the app. The difference with TikTok is that it literally doesn’t stop. You can spend one minute or 12 hours in a row on it. I think that it is extremely unhealthy.” 

A unique feature of TikTok is the For You Page. The FYP is made up of content recommended for the user based on algorithms that determine what that user likes to see. By consistently displaying new content, it has become one of the most addictive social media platforms. LSA sophomore Megan Shohfi claims that “it is the most addicting app (she has) ever had.” 

If the algorithm is based on what viewers like to see, it should be things they are interested in and want to see and have a positive impact on mental health, right? Unfortunately not. For many people, the videos that they might spend more time watching are not healthy. For example, Shohfi’s FYP is made up of lots of health and fitness videos. However, she notes, she often sees an “unhealthy diet culture. The way that some influencers use TikTok to promote unhealthy eating habits frustrates me because younger girls probably see that and think that it is normal. I see things like only drinking water for breakfast and extreme diets.” 

It is hard to control which videos hold our attention. Many videos on my FYP promote unhealthy habits as well. I find myself watching them because I am so shocked and confused about how they are real. What TikTok sees, however, is that I am taking the time to watch the full video. Therefore, more videos like this appear on my FYP. 

TikTok has a very young audience. Nearly 40 percent of users in the United States are teenagers or younger and more than 25 percent are in their 20s. Many users are in their formative years and are at risk of being heavily influenced by social media. The intense diet culture of the app has the potential to begin or intensify body image issues for all users, but can especially affect younger teens who are already going through a period of higher insecurity and confusion. 

When interviewees were asked about the typical famous TikTok male and female, very different descriptions were used. The typical female was described by all as skinny, white, good looking, good at dancing and usually showing lots of skin. On the other hand, the typical male was described as average and funny. My 12-year-old brother once said to me, “girls just have to be pretty and wear a bikini” when discussing how to get famous on the app. 

I am a strong believer that women should be able to wear and do whatever they want in their posts. However, many young females are getting the impression that what society values are their bodies and looks. When they see that famous females are skinny, pretty and happy, they may think that they would be happier if their lives were more similar to those famous TikTok users. “A lot of famous TikTok people are famous because they are good looking and seem to have fun lives,” LSA sophomore Benjamin Servetah said. “It seems like their lives are better and it can cause you to feel worse about yourself.” 

Social media allows people to only present the best versions of themselves. Users witness beautiful, skinny, famous people that seem happy and can feel bad about their own situation. The possibility that anyone can reach fame on the app is exciting, but it also means that those who do not get many views or likes may feel that the community is disapproving of them and that they are not attractive or funny enough. 

The app has many fun and interesting features. As with any social media platform, people can express themselves and relate to others. Even the dancing culture has positive features, as dancers have found an outlet to share their talents. From painting to cooking to fitness, TikTok allows people to be creative and gain recognition for their talents. However, there are little to no positive impacts on mental health. Even famous TikTok users have begun to speak out about the massive amounts of hate and judgment they receive on their bodies and choices. Addison Rae, one of the most famous female TikTok dancers, recently spoke out on Twitter about the body-shaming comments she receives after being compared to a whale multiple times on the app.

The app has the potential for creativity and spreading positive messages that could potentially help mental health. For this to become reality, however, users must be aware of their interactions with the app to maximize the benefits. If people stop liking and giving attention to videos with negative ideas about body image and unhealthy messages, those videos will gain less traction and show up on fewer people’s FYP. The culture of the users must change for the app to change. Awareness and a conscious effort to spread positivity can put TikTok in the right direction. 

Elizabeth Peppercorn can be reached at epepperc@umich.edu