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TikTok Ban and Mental Illness: Mental Health Implications on Content Creators

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An online entertainment platform best known for short comedy and dance videos, TikTok has been downloaded over 2 billion times globally. With over 800 million users worldwide, TikTok is believed to be the 6th largest social network! Its growth has been phenomenal; like many other popular social media platforms that keep users hooked on to them, TikTok too has proven to be a highly addictive platform.

The app was recently banned in India, where it had around 200 million users. The move came after a violent border skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops in June this year. Outside of China, India was the largest market for TikTok.

The app was available in 14 languages in India. While there have been arguments both in favor and against the ban on the video-sharing social networking app owned by ByteDance; a Beijing-based internet technology company, not many have discussed the impact it would have on the mental health of content creators who have lost their livelihood as well as followers gained over the years. Here in this post, we will shed light on mental health implications on content creators due to the TikTok ban.

How does the TikTok algorithm work?

It isn’t easy to not get addicted to TikTok whether you are a content creator or a content consumer. The video content produced on the video-sharing platform even goes viral on other social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

While many UX (User Experience) experts and internet entrepreneurs have tried to dissect the algorithm TikTok is based on, it is not entirely possible to figure out what goes behind the scene.

Such algorithms and recommendation engines are well-guarded secrets simply because of the massive advantage they provide.

However, TikTok did reveal some basic details about its recommendation engine in a recent press statement. The company shared information on how TikTok’s ‘ForYou’ video suggestions are generated.

According to the press statement, recommendations are based on various factors including

  • User interactions such as the videos you like/share, content you create, accounts you follow, and comments you post on the platform.
  • Video information such as captions, hashtags, and sounds.
  • Device and account settings such as your device type, location, country, etc.

TikTok continues to refine recommendations for each user based on how they create or consume content on the platform.

TikTok initially asks users to provide inputs such as categories of interests to help a user get started with the app. Later on, it continues to polish recommendations.

Video content created by someone with a million followers is likely to fetch more views but the recommendation system does not take a content creator’s follower base or previous track record of creating content that went viral into account.

This essentially means that if a video has the potential, TikTok will make sure it is recommended to more users.

The details shared by TikTok on how its AI-powered recommendation engine works is the tip of the iceberg at best.

Unlike YouTube, you do not have to search for videos on TikTok. On Instagram, you stop scrolling after a while because you lose interest. But on TikTok, there is an endless supply of fresh content produced and disseminated by an intelligent recommendation system every minute.

The recommendation system keeps you hooked on to bite-sized content (videos are typically short, some as short as 30 seconds).

It is the small run time that keeps users busy for an extended duration of time. As people start enjoying the memes, comedies, talents, etc., they find it extremely difficult to exit the app.

If you are a techie, you can read a data scientist’s take on how TikTok’s AI algorithm works.

Is it true that TikTok is the most harmful to your mental health?

Depending upon which content creators you follow, how much time you spend each week on the platform, and the type of content you consume, can have a positive or negative effect on your mental health.

But, this holds true for just about every popular social network.

While content creators are prone to get addicted to receiving appreciation on TikTok, they may develop stress if they fail to garner the expected number of views or followers. Content consumers, on the other hand, may develop negative stereotypes or opinions based on misinformation.

Over the last few months, TikTok has been severely criticized for the platform’s failure to quickly remove content that glorified acid attacks, molestation, etc. An Indian court in 2019 had banned TikTok in 2019 saying the app pollutes youngsters. The Madras High Court at the time, while announcing the verdict, had ruled: “By becoming addicted to TikTok App., and similar apps or cyber games, the future of the youngsters and mindset of the children are spoiled.”

But, there is no direct evidence available to establish whether TikTok is harmful to your mental health.

However, smartphone addiction is real. Mental health risks associated with it are also real.

Existing mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, compulsive personality disorder, bipolar disorder, etc. can further increase mobile phone addiction by a factor of 3 to 4.  

Impact of TikTok on influencing younger generation into micro-fame

The vast majority of TikTok users are minors and teenagers.

Young content creators on TikTok perceive TikTok as an opportunity to get recognition. They feel happy when their video content is liked and commented on by people.

This newfound recognition can sure make them more confident. Since most TikTok content creators perform in videos they create, they also tend to become more conscious of how they look.

But, this micro-fame on TikTok doesn’t come without cons. More often than not, TikTok users harass content creators for the color of their skin, race, accent, dressing sense, skills, etc.

At times, comments from other TikTok users can be derogatory, vulgar, and highly disrespectful. Young girls, in particular, are more likely to face vulgar and objectifying comments on the platform.

Minors and teenagers are not always prepared to overlook such behavior from their followers or other users on the platform.

This is why it’s important for parents to closely monitor a minor who has been using TikTok to showcase her/his creativity. Teen content creators should be advised on how to safely use the video-sharing app.

In October 2018, a 24-year-old boy committed suicide in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, allegedly because he was trolled for dressing up as a woman in a TikTok video. News reports from Tamilnadu said there was a sudden increase on TikTok related harassment and bullying.

A youngster with existing mental health issues may develop stress and anxiety quite easily if s/he is at the receiving end of unintentional or targeted abuse or harassment on TikTok.

TikTok like many other social media platforms has helped hundreds and thousands of youngsters realize their dreams of becoming singers, comedians, dancers, actors, etc. For many of them, it has become a healthy source of income and a gateway to the entertainment industry.

But at the same time, there are many others who have had little or no success on the platform.

Several studies have been conducted over the past two years to understand the effects of TikTok on the younger generation.

According to a recent study, a multitude of TikTok features can be misused, leading to content vulgarization.

Researchers believe that TikTok should do more to protect users, especially minors and teenagers from misapplication of app’s features; it should enable platform users to report inappropriate content as it is the case with other social media apps and popular content platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

It is possible that TikTok will take corrective measures after it was banned in India.

There are many other countries contemplating a complete ban on TikTok due to its inability (or unwillingness) to filter out or remove content that’s vulgar/inappropriate or doesn’t take family/social-values of a country/region into consideration.

Indonesia, for instance, had temporarily banned TikTok in 2018 citing concerns including blasphemy, pornography, and inappropriate content.

Pakistan issued a ‘final warning’ to TikTok in July this year. An official warning from the country’s telecommunications authority stated that the app would be banned if it failed to remove ‘immoral, obscene, and vulgar content.’

Turkey is currently investigating TikTok due to data privacy concerns.

| Also Read: How to Support Social and Emotional Well-Being of Kids during COVID-19

Another life lost: 18-year-old TikTok star dies by suicide; was suffering from depression

In July this year, an 18-year Indian TikTok committed suicide. The girl, a Delhi University student, was reportedly suffering from depression for over two months.

Although media reports speculated that she ended her life due to the ban on TikTok, there was no evidence to suggest or establish as such. No suicide note was found.

But people were shocked to learn that such a talented TikTok star had been suffering from depression for so long.

Earlier in June this year, another Indian TikTok star, a 16-year-old girl had committed suicide. Cops are still investigating the reason behind her death.

A recent study did suggest that teenagers now feel more depressed, hopeless, and are more likely to commit suicide.

According to researchers, there was an abrupt increase in teen suicide rates, suicide risk factors, and symptoms of depression since 2012, when smartphones and mobile applications became immensely popular all over the world.

According to this study, teens who spend over five hours daily on their smartphones or other such devices regardless of the type of content they consume, are 91% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor!

It goes without saying that hundreds and thousands of teens today spend several hours daily on apps like TikTok.

How suddenly being cut off of social media apps affects mental health

According to psychiatrists, social media applications such as TikTok make people addicted to them. Addiction develops through the creation of the same neural pathways that are typically created when a person develops a dependence on cannabis, alcohol, or nicotine.

While using smartphone apps that you enjoy will result in the release of dopamine – a hormone that makes us feel happy – doing so repeatedly also results in overdependence.

With repeated use, a person feels the urge to spend more time on smartphone apps like TikTok to feel the same level of pleasure.  

So, what happens when a person addicted to a social media app can’t use it anymore?

In such a scenario, the daily dose of dopamine hits is gone and they will most likely find themselves in a withdrawal state. Suddenly, there isn’t anything to beat boredom or loneliness. So naturally, it may lead to distress in many users.

Well, at least, until they find alternative sources to reach their altered level of pleasure.

A recent study has revealed that at least one out of every six persons addicted to social media apps will develop mental health problems including depression and anxiety.

It is highly likely that the TikTok ban would have affected the emotional well-being of many teenagers in India, who until recently were addicted to endless swiping.

How can we all get through this together?

It is the shared responsibility of us all to make sure social media apps such as TikTok do not become double-edged swords for youngsters.

There are content creators on TikTok who have been using the platform to inspire and help others. While some people have been sharing valuable information on mental-health related topics, others have been explaining what it means to be bisexual. It can be an opportunity to share stories that deserve to be heard by millions across the world. It can be a medium to develop one’s skills. The possibilities are countless. 

But at the same time, there is no dearth of content creators on TikTok who have done exactly the opposite, just to get famous overnight.

On occasions, TikTok videos have also been found spreading hate speech.

TikTok and other such apps can be used as stress-relievers.  After all, many of us do find such apps entertaining.

With careful monitoring and efforts on the part of internet entrepreneurs, policymakers, and other stakeholders, we can hopefully minimize the possible damage such apps can cause, which otherwise serves as a medium to showcase one’s creativity.