Distracting yourself from boredom can be quite challenging sometimes. If your usual hobbies fail to entertain you, you might open up TikTok on your mobile device. TikTok is an application where you can see a variety of videos with different themes and content, most of which focus on dancing, comedy, and vlogging. Usually there is nothing wrong with these kinds of videos; they are harmless and fun. The app has grown so much that those who have become famous on the platform have been labeled as “influencers.'' Most are teenagers. These influencers tend to draw the attention of young users, who sometimes attempt to copy them. These impressionable users become interested in the attention said influencers attract and the popularity those influencers enjoy among their peers. Users thus indulge themselves in a world where getting likes and comments is highly important. Often, it does not matter what they have to do if it brings them significant attention. But, why is this obsession with likes so important and why are young kids and teens easily influenced by the whims of TikTok?
“Erik Erikson postulated that teens are experiencing the Identity v. Role Confusion psychosocial crisis. During this stage, teens are gaining independence and looking towards their future. They are searching for a sense of self and identity through understanding their values and beliefs. Teens during this stage may try on a variety of identities to determine what fits right for them” (Slay, 2021). While one could argue that youth in its entirety is formative, the stage encompassing childhood and adolescence can be considered one of the most important as this is when one’s sense of identity begins to form. Like Erikson mentions in his article, children are looking to gain a sense of self and discover who they want to be. In a world evolving so rapidly technologically, there is the potential for children to become too immersed in these pursuits. TikTok is a new platform where they feel they may be able to stand out, posting content to get any kind of attention. Of course, it is easy to lose oneself in the likes and comments. What can start as an innocent pastime can become an obsession that yields negative side effects–for example, the envy of other users’ popularity and the overwhelming desire to reach their level of success. This can affect teens’ mental health, causing them to fall into depressive states or even evince narcissistic traits.
According to findings by the Education Policy Institute, young people highlight challenges with self-esteem as they move from primary to secondary school, including “caring more about what other people think of you, as well as the difficulty of navigating relationships with peers” (Crenna-Young, 2021). Peer pressure is one of the many factors that drive children and teenagers to chase popularity. Crenna-Young (2021) states, “They talked about a ‘standard’ they felt they had to fit and concerns about being laughed at and called names, including for caring about their schoolwork and grades.” To deal with the stress and social pressures caused by their personal lives and school, children and teenagers turn to TikTok in attempts to fit in and find comfort in the attention of others. However, according to the article, young people’s mental health suffers as the image they create is not a reflection of who they are but what others want them to be.
“What is dangerous about this compulsive use is that, if gratification is not experienced, users may internalize beliefs that this is due to being ‘unpopular,’ ‘unfunny’ etc.” (Edmonds, n.d). This negative image of oneself can start to affect her reality as she succumbs to the belief that if one is not popular on TikTok, you are a “nobody” in life. “A lack of ‘likes’ on a status update may cause negative self-reflection, prompting continual ‘refreshing’ of the page in the hope of seeing that another person has ‘enjoyed’ the post, thus helping to achieve personal validation” (Edmonds, n.d). As Edmonds states, this need for validation is another factor that pushes children and teens to develop a dependence on TikTok. Worst of all, some might resort to doing dangerous things in order to attain said validation. “Attention, likes, and shares of dangerous challenges that have enough traction to trend increase the risk that someone will get hurt. Popularity tells our primitive brains that something is of value unless we stop and question it” (Rutledge, 2021). In particular, some TikTok users participate in dangerous challenges in order to get the attention they desire. These challenges can include eating raw protein powder, stealing school property, and doing age-inappropriate dances. Especially dangerous trends include the Benadryl Challenge, in which participants film themselves consuming large doses of Benadryl to document the high they experience, and the Nutmeg Challenge, in which participants drink mixtures of nutmeg with milk or water, which can cause intoxication (Slay, 2021). These are all frequently circulated around the platform despite the risk of injury or even death.
It is important to acknowledge that young TikTok users are not (solely) to blame for their worrying antics. As Rutledge (2021) states, “Parents have the power to help kids make the right choices by developing the critical thinking necessary to make those distinctions. It starts with building an open and trusting relationship, talking early and often about ever-changing digital behaviors, pressures, and what it means to be a responsible digital citizen, so you know (most of) what your kids do online.” Protecting the mental health of young TikTok users begins by establishing an open line of communication with parents and educators. In fact, children and teenagers may be looking for validation on the platform because of a lack of connection with their parents. Parents are often busy with responsibilities that limit the time they are able to spend with their children so it is not surprising that adolescents turn to TikTok for attention. In addition, how children are raised may determine how they respond to peer pressure. Peer pressure may occur when children reared in unhealthy households try to exert their influence on other children to attract attention. Overall, it is important that parents understand the effect that TikTok can have on their childrens’ mental health so that they can protect their kids instead of turning a blind eye.
It is key that we pay attention to how teens are navigating the internet and social media. Parents need to communicate with their children to better understand how these platforms affect them. Tiktok is not all bad. Indeed, it can showcase one’s creativity. But if we do not set limits, the negatives will outweigh the positives. This obsession is making young children forget how to socialize correctly, searching for friends that will give them a boost of validation, whether on TikTok or in real-life, rather than creating real friendships. The negative effects caused by the overuse of TikTok, and other apps like it, will reflect in the way they interact with their environment and into adulthood. Again, it is crucial to establish a healthy relationship with our youth to better understand them and prevent the development of unhealthy attachments and self-image online.
Crenna-Jennings, W. (2021, January). Young people's mental and emotional health: Trajectories and drivers in childhood and adolescence. The Education Policy Institute. Retrieved 2021, from https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/ EPI-PT_Young-people%E2%8 0%99s-wellbeing_Jan2021.pdf
Edmonds, R. (n.d.). Anxiety, loneliness and Fear of Missing Out: The impact of social media on young people's mental health. Centre for Mental Health. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/blogs/anxiety-loneliness-and-fear-missing -out-impact-social-media-young-peoples-mental-health
Rutledge, P. (2021, February 12). Why Kids Love TikTok Challenges. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/positively-media/202102/why-kids -love-tiktok-challenges
Slay, B.-A. (2021, August 13). Why "TikTok Diagnoses" Are on the Rise. Psychology Today. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ us/blog/the-culture/202108/why-tiktok-diagnoses-are-the-rise