Since the app TikTok grew to fame in 2020, I’m sure we have all heard of the different movements formed by politicians or social activists in attempts to remove it from American media. And whether it be under the precedence of data safety or misinforming the youth, the concept is still one that many have probably shaken their heads at and thought, “What a boomer.” At least I have. I thought it to be such a dystopian reality we live in, that this many people, let alone politicians, care about a downloaded feature on your phone that simply plays thirty-second videos. I’d think, “It’s just a way to entertain myself and have some mindless downtime. An app doesn’t have the power to actually affect me and even if it did, I could easily monitor myself and handle it.” And honestly, this had been my stance on TikTok and even more so, social media in general, for the 7 years of taking part in the fun.
That was until I watched Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’ in late February. Throughout the film, multiple tech experts previously employed by Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies (yes, Google is considered a form of social media) speak on the reality of the industry, with its foundations of manipulation of our mental and social states. Getting into the details of these applications being coded to retrieve maximum human attention and therefore, income for the company, there is an emphasis on the complete absence of action towards the ethical and moral responsibilities these companies hold. The employees stress that how we interact with specific content does have the significance to control how users overall feel, learn, socialize, and “function.”
What they used to prove it (and the kicker for me): During 2010, the number of hospital admissions for non-fatal self harm had begun increasing dramatically, which correlated with the sudden availability of social media on mobile in 2009. In the 13 years since, it has increased 62% for girls aged 15-19, and 189% for girls aged 10-14. Statistics show the same pattern with suicide rates. Compared to the 2001-2009 average, U.S suicide rates are up 70% in girls aged 15-19, and 151% in girls aged 10-14.
The more I thought of my relationship to my phone, the more I realized my disregard for the effects it could possibly have on me. But I still wasn’t completely convinced. I thought, “Maybe I’m a special case.” So seeing it as a small and temporary start to test my curiosities, I saved a few drafts that I wanted to hold onto (because your drafts are deleted too, I learned that the hard way) and deleted the app. Although I was disappointed when, within the first week, I felt little change in my life. I did feel its absence for the first few days, but other than confusion over why my roommates were talking about Hailey Baldwin so much, turning on the TV more regularly, and being really, really bored on the toilet, I felt as if I was the same Halle.
Then, about halfway into the second week, my cousin passed away after being involved in a motor cycling accident. My family and I were deeply affected by the sudden change and almost instantly, I felt a shift in how I viewed the world around me. Days continued to pass, all the while I sensed what felt like every single emotion at once: pain, confusion, anger, hope, denial. As opposed to what I was boldly claiming beforehand, I wasn’t the same Halle anymore. But that had nothing to do with TikTok. Life and death continued to take place, and the presence of an app had absolutely no power against it. However, as time gave me the opportunity to fully experience my emotions and reflect, I began to consider a possible benefit to the reality of the matter.
As any 21 year old has, I have and will face multitudes of challenges during my time in this world. Being turned down from jobs, attempting to create connections among peers, finding a partner, learning to accept, maybe even love, the way that I look, the passing of friends and family – these and so many more events are simply a part of life. But it is important to allow ourselves a chance to fully experience these moments, rather than giving an app the ability to either exacerbate our emotions or ignore the inevitable. There were times during this past month that I really wanted to download TikTok again, but I recognized that it was always in my lowest moments when those desires came. Because whether I was using the app to encourage my negative emotions or as a distraction from my negative emotions, neither is a healthy way to cope with an already difficult life.
Like stated before, tech-employees themselves have drawn attention to the fact that the way society interacts with their content has the potential to control how the users feel, learn, socialize, and function; but a key aspect of this is the way society interacts. It is largely up to us to understand the personal advantages and disadvantages that come with a specific app, and to interact with content accordingly. Deep down, many do recognize when an aspect of our life has become a hindrance, one that is holding us back from reaching our full potential, similar to how a vice may. Because whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or personally, TikTok – apps do have the gravity to add madness to an already hectic world. We can choose to change the narrative however by consciously deciding how and when we let these apps have that power.