Breaking the cycle of TikTok addiction

April 3, 2023 | 04:07 pm PT
Ngo Di Lan
I make a conscious effort not to spend more than 30 minutes at a time on TikTok, but I rarely succeed.

Thirty minutes easily becomes 40 minutes, and sometimes I sit there for over an hour.

Popular video-sharing platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, despite their differences, were all created with one goal in mind: to keep users glued to their screens for as long as possible.

To achieve this goal, these platforms have developed personalized algorithms to create an addictive loop for users. TikTok's algorithm, for instance, can learn one's preferences based on data like what they tend to skip or like, and then shows them more videos that fit those preferences.

When combined with the infinite scrolling feature, these algorithms become a formidable "superweapon". While YouTube's default mode is for users to actively search for content, TikTok automatically displays a random video that it deems suitable for the user's interests as soon as the application is opened. With just a swipe up gesture, users will be able to load new videos continuously. The "swipe, watch, swipe, watch" cycle creates a seamless and hard-to-break experience. In addition, TikTok's addictive nature also comes from its capacity to instill the "fear of missing out" (FOMO). In other words, users are always on the edge of their seats, ready to watch the next piece of content out of fear of missing out something interesting or important.

Social networks like Facebook and Instagram also use similar mechanisms to keep users engaged. TikTok's short video format, however, has the potential to spread virally and more quickly than others because it takes advantage of modern humans' greatest weakness: their greatly diminished ability to concentrate. Since more and more users are becoming interested in short and digestible content, it's no surprise that TikTok videos have gone viral globally.

This can indeed have positive effects on users, particularly when TikTok is used to spread inspirational stories or essential information. On the other hand, if misused, it can rapidly become a tool for disseminating harmful or false content. Also, personal information could be at risk due to the platform's habit of continuously collecting and storing massive amounts of user data.

The U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K., and India are among the countries that have taken strong measures to curb the growth of TikTok or outright banned it because of the harm it has caused. For instance, as of March 6, TikTok is no longer allowed on any government-issued devices in Australia. In a somewhat similar response, Canada in early March announced that the app TikTok would be blocked on all government-issued devices. In the U.S., due to worries that ByteDance, the parent company of the app, would give user data to the Chinese government, the U.S. Congress, White House, military, as well as more than half of all states, have also banned TikTok.

According to a survey of Vietnamese internet users in 2021, 74% of young people used TikTok daily, making it the most popular app in that demographic. The percentage of users, mostly young adults (18–30), increased from 34% in 2020 to 53% in 2021. Additionally, average daily usage increased from 4% to 8%.

There has not been a comprehensive study of the harm caused by TikTok in Vietnam, especially among young people. However, some countries have conducted extensive and cautious investigations, starting with concerns about the harmful effects of TikTok on the mental health of adolescents.

In the U.S., approximately two-thirds of American adolescents used TikTok in 2022, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center. U.S. government officials have accused the platform's video content recommendation algorithm of contributing to the rise in eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide among young users.

Young Vietnamese internet users are also experiencing these problems.

The question is, from the perspective of state management, what can be done to limit the app's potentially harmful effects? It would be simplest to follow the lead of other countries and simply outlaw the app across the board in Vietnam. However, such a ban may be viewed as extreme and difficult to implement, as other major platforms, like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook, have launched short video formats similar to TikTok clips, such as YouTube shorts and Facebook reels. It's unrealistic to think that banning all apps will do the trick, and it's not wise to ignore the benefits of these platforms just because of their drawbacks.

The better approach is for stakeholders to work closely with TikTok to coordinate the rollout of safeguards designed to protect users, especially children, from the app's negative effects.

When it comes to preventing the spread of harmful content, Vietnamese authorities can make direct, unequivocal, and firm requests to TikTok. TikTok has joined YouTube and Facebook in allowing users to report offensive videos by using the report button. However, unlike the "like" and "save" buttons, the report button is not prominently displayed; instead, you need to hold the screen for 1-2 seconds before the report function appears. Requests should be made to TikTok to implement a report button that sits just below the like button and shows the total number of times a video has been reported.

As for users, especially parents, they should also take the time to learn about tools available on social media sites for monitoring children's activities. TikTok, for instance, has recently introduced features like daily usage time reminders, privacy and safety settings, and viewing time limits. However, not everyone is aware of these enhancements because they have not been widely advertised or presented in prominent locations within the app. The government can suggest that TikTok and schools launch social campaigns to educate parents and students about the app's controls for inappropriate content, and the best ways to use it to advance academic and personal development.

Prohibition should only be used as a last resort, but allowing people unrestricted access to social media could have negative consequences for young people and pose a threat to national data security. The most important thing is to come up with innovative ways to ensure user safety while still letting people benefit from technological advancements.

*Ngo Di Lan has a PhD in International Relations at Brandeis University in the U.S.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top