I have never known life without the internet. When I was younger, my parents tried to keep me offline as much as possible. They even attempted to implement a coupon system for screen time (that idea barely lasted a week). I have been surfing the web for as long as I can remember. The same goes for most of Gen Z. We’ve grown up with Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and then Instagram and Snapchat, sharing our pictures, thoughts, and feelings.
One platform in particular has taken over my generation and dominated our high school years: TikTok. The short-form video app, which launched in September 2016 as a stream for fifteen-second dance routines and lip-synchs, has transformed into a content behemoth that combines the influencer ethos of Instagram, the interactive element (and toxicity) of Twitter, and the viral fame that first emerged through that ancient platform YouTube. TikTok has morphed into a source for current events — for some people my age, their only source — and, like other social media apps, it continues to grapple with how to reduce the spread of misinformation.
It’s easy to see why this video-sharing sensation, which has the highest engagement rate of any social network, is so addictive. Its built-in tools go beyond the familiar comments and likes. Users can hit a button to “stitch” their own audiovisual commentary onto existing posts or film a side-by-side reaction to other creators’ videos (this option is what gave rise to the sea shanty craze earlier this year). The “For You” page serves up a buffet of personalized content, which learns and adapts from the way you interact with it. Besides the usual slew of fashion creators and food accounts, my own follows have grown to include a puzzle maker who breaks down language abnormalities and an account that documents the restoration of a Victorian octagon house.
Because the feed is so customizable and at the same time random, it’s almost impossible to get bored. The application is “designed to perform algorithmic pyrotechnics,” as Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker, back in 2019. The constant flow of bite-sized content can make half an hour disappear in the blink of an eye, despite the screen time advisory warnings — a courtesy feature that was added last year. TikTok also has the same problems associated with other sharing platforms, especially for teenage girls, to do with body image and appearance. (I have to remind myself every so often that influencers show only the highlight reels of their lives.) But this wasn’t why I quit TikTok.
I remember the exact moment I decided to break my scrolling habit. It was last winter and I had been browsing videos instead of writing an essay when I came across a post for an interactive art exhibition. The gallery space was bright and colourful and filled with large sculptures you could touch and explore. The pandemic was at its height, however, and the angry internet masses started calling people out for disobeying health protocols. I knew that the comments for this post would be bad, but I looked anyway.
Instantly I was smacked in the face by every possible opinion a person could have on the situation — from people who likely didn’t have medical degrees but felt the need to blast their views through cyberspace and then attack anyone who disagreed with them. As I scrolled on, my stomach dropped and my mood was pulled down with it. Over the next few days, I asked myself, Why did I choose to sift through these piles of judgments when they left me feeling drained and depressed? Sometimes I was looking for different takes on an issue I was unsure about. Other times, I knew that the remarks would be horrible and unproductive, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to feast my eyes on this ugly corner of the world (an altogether different offering from those food streams).
So much of internet culture is about directing immense amounts of hate toward whatever thing is the current focus of attention. A friend of mine posted a video about an avocado that went viral and received comments like “I want to punch that girl in the face.” Removed from the insulated space of TikTok, the violence of that statement shocks me. Yet when I was on the app, I’d become completely desensitized.
A couple of realizations came out of this experience. First, comments sections do not represent real life. Shocker, I know. But it’s easy to forget that the people behind those little glowing boxes are probably just kids who haven’t left their rooms in three days. Second, there isn’t always one answer. The world is so complex and so old and there are so many people, it’s impossible for everyone to agree all the time. I’ve learned that it’s best to do my own research and form my own opinions, preferably outside of the social media echo chamber.
It was hard to quit TikTok. I tucked the little black and neon icon into a folder on my phone to hide it away. I still occasionally catch myself staring at my home screen, yearning for a quick fix of effortless entertainment. (And I have been sucked back in once or twice.) I’ve now downloaded a cat café game, for when I need something mindless, and I’ve returned to reading: Kurt Vonnegut’s and David Sedaris’s cheeky voices have replaced the loop of song clips in my head. Overall, it’s a relief to take control of my time. I’m trying to spend more of it in the real world.