The Psychology of TikTok: Why You Can't Stop Scrolling
The TikTok we know today was very carefully and methodically perfected with the goal of total global influence.
It’s 1:28 am. You’ve been scrolling through TikTok for the past two hours. You promised yourself you would go to sleep earlier tonight, but “five more minutes” on TikTok somehow turned into hours. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it’s a place that many of us have found ourselves in, without any idea of how to stop and where to even start.
While we might not have all the answers, we can help you understand the psychology behind the addictive nature of TikTok, and some tips for spending less time with your eyes glued to the screen.
Where did TikTok come from?
TikTok is not one of those social media apps that three college-aged boys randomly decided to create. The TikTok we know today was very carefully and methodically perfected with the goal of total global influence.
TikTok actually started as a few different apps before merging into its current state.
The first app was called Musical.ly, which launched in 2014 in Shanghai, and had a very strong and healthy global audience for its short-lived reign of popularity.
In 2016, the Chinese technology giant ByteDance launched an app in China with a similar concept to Musical.ly called Douyin, which attracted 100 million users across China and Thailand within a year.
Following the popularity of Douyin, ByteDance wanted to expand its success to the global sphere. The company bought Musical.ly and combined it with Douyin to create a new app – TikTok.
- As of January 2022, TikTok has over 3 billion downloads and over 1 billion monthly users
- TikTok was the most popular app downloaded globally in 2020 and 2021
- 60 percent of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24
- The average user spends 52 minutes per day on TikTok
Why is it so addictive?
As humans, we have a very natural and ingrained need for connection with others – so being able to connect with millions of other people around the world by simply opening an app on our phones and scrolling feeds right into our most basic desires.
Thanks to the popularity of social media, we can constantly update the people we know, as well as total strangers, about the clothes we are wearing, the food we are eating, the people we are seeing and the things we are doing. All with a simple press of a button.
The "Like" button
The ‘like’ button is a hallmark of pretty much every social media platform, and it serves a very important purpose. ‘Likes’ provide information on social norms and trends, and indicate the wider societal view on a piece of content that has been posted, in turn influencing how individual users will perceive it. The ‘like’ button has been instrumental in the growth of many social media platforms, and TikTok is no exception.
‘Likes’ also serve as a reward for users, feeding directly into mechanisms of reward-based learning and addiction loops. A ‘like’ functions as a virtual social endorsement, indicating approval and popularity to the user posting content.
Dopamine is commonly referred to as one of the brain’s “happy hormones”, and it is a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good. Dopamine release is a key element of the positive feedback loop that drives reward-based learning – if you find one video on TikTok that makes you laugh, chances are you will keep scrolling through 50 other uninteresting videos in order to find another dopamine hit. See how the cycle never ends?
The success of TikTok very heavily hinges on the amount of time that people spend on the app and as a result the number of people that become addicted to the app. Users spend 52 minutes per day on average on TikTok, and this is largely due to the never-ending scroll function. The infinite scroll increases the addictive quality of TikTok by lulling users into a flow-like state where time distorts and it becomes easy to scroll through hundreds of videos without dedicating much thought to the action.
Short, sharp, and immersive
While TikTok now allows users to post videos up to 10 minutes long, most videos still run for 15 seconds or under – giving users quick little dopamine hits and then leaving them wanting more in a very short amount of time. The TikTok feed is straightforward and user-friendly, with only a limited number of buttons to look at. Videos fit full-screen onto phones, and this combined with all of the other features further draws people into a flow-like state where users can enjoy a fully immersive experience.
The "for you" page
All social media platforms use algorithms to analyse what we like and what we don’t like in order to show us content that we are more likely to enjoy and interact with. TikTok has taken the classic social media algorithm and made it 100 times faster and more accurate. What this means is that the ‘For You’ page shows users videos that are almost terrifyingly accurate to their current state and super relevant to their lives. The accuracy of the algorithm appears to be so eerily accurate that many users joke about how TikTok knows things about them before they do, with many people claiming that TikTok knew their sexuality before they did. By providing users with such hyper-accurate content, people feel heard and represented by the app, and naturally want to spend more time immersed in the world of TikTok.
Okay, so how can I be more intentional with my time?
Now that we know the psychology behind TikTok, it’s time to find out how you can fight against the never-ending scroll and become more intentional with your time.
In an attempt to help people maintain a healthy relationship with the app, TikTok introduced a ‘Digital Wellbeing’ feature, allowing users to implement a daily screen time limit, screen time breaks, and weekly screen time updates, as well as providing data about the time spent on the app and the number of times the app was opened in a weekly summary.
While daily screen time limits might help you only spend a certain amount of time scrolling per day, the breaks feature can actually help you to become more mindful and balanced on the app. You might find it hard to have a hard limit that forces you to stop using an app, and the introduction of breaks can help you to step away and take a breather, and decide for yourself if you want to keep scrolling or move onto a different activity. Chances are, once given the option, you’ll choose to move away from the screen as a break helps to interrupt the flow-like state of the ‘For You’ page.
Turn off notifications
Sometimes the thing that sucks you into a mindless scroll is that pesky little red dot that is telling you to open the app, right now. By turning off your notifications, you have less reason to check TikTok at the same moment that someone has shared a video with you or liked your content, and it might help you to only use the app when you actually want to.
Leave your phone in another room
Apparently, three-quarters of people reach for their phones without having to move, so the likelihood of reaching for your phone as often if you have to get up and walk to it is lower. It’s all about stopping the scroll before it even happens.
Of course, other great ways of quitting the endless TikTok scroll include deleting the app altogether or leaving your phone at home, but while these are tips that will definitely see your screen time plummet, moderation rather than cold-turkey quitting is the key to still enjoying the pleasures that TikTok has to offer while maintaining a healthy balance with the app. Because ultimately, you should be the one in control.
This article was written by one of our Social Media Co-ordinators and blog writers, Hannah Jantos.