Social media giant TikTok took the world by storm and provided a much-needed social media escape when its popularity grew during the COVID-19 quarantine in 2020. This app allows people to connect via social media and demonstrate their talents through short-form videos that can be up to three minutes long. Although TikTok has become the most popular social media platform in recent years, it has been linked to psychological effects on Generation Z, those born from 1997-2012. The app inflicts several tactics to retain its audience and keep users on the app.
According to a 2020 Forbes Magazine article, “over 60% of TikTok users are comprised of Generation Z,” but, since then, the platform has continued to expand its audience. TikTok appeals to Gen Z-ers because it provides a space for “an expression of individual truth” (Muliadi, 2020). Everyone is a mystery on TikTok, making it that much easier to create a new identity for yourself; it also allows for creativity to thrive, demonstrated through creating viral dances, small business promotions, and comedic sketches.
The average attention span of Gen Z is around eight seconds, proving that staying on TikTok becomes easier, as their videos typically don’t last longer than three minutes (Boger, 2020). The shorter the videos, the longer you’ll stay on the app. Interestingly enough, scrolling through social media qualifies as multitasking (Thorpe, 2021). While aimlessly wandering around social media tends to be seen in a negative light, “a review of the available science in Yale Journal Of Biology & Medicine in 2019 found that the relationship between technologies and attention spans is inconclusive,” (Thorpe, 2021).
When we scroll through our feeds, switching between content so quickly, “the brain gets a hit of dopamine each time, creating a sort of neurological ‘high,’” illustrating how the simple act of scrolling through TikTok gives just enough of a “rush” to our brains that we prolong our stay on the app (Rupp, 2022). This dopamine rush can be attributed to classical conditioning, which is, “a type of unconscious or automatic learning” where an “earning process creates a conditioned response through associations between an unconditioned stimulus and a neutral stimulus,” (Cherry, 2014). In this case, when a new video that pops up on TikTok would be considered an unconditional response, triggering your brain to automatically release dopamine and tricking itself into thinking each video is a reward. This psychological marketing tool is exactly how TikTok keeps users on the app for extended amounts of time.
In terms of the psychological marketing side of TikTok, there are an array of tactics they use to engage their audience and keep them scrolling. TikTok’s algorithm “detect[s] your music tastes, sexual orientation, mental health, and sense of humor,” developing your For You Page to quite literally be specific for you (McClintock, 2022). TikTok “relies heavily on how much time you spend watching each video to steer you toward more videos that will keep you scrolling, and that process can sometimes lead young viewers down dangerous rabbit holes,” proving that TikTok can take someone out of their reality, even if it’s for 15 minutes a day (Smith, 2021). Another way social media tries to keep you hooked on their apps, whether it’s TikTok or Instagram, is a psychological marketing tactic that is used to make “consumers feel it is a way to kill time and enjoy by watching live broadcast commerce,” keeping them scrolling for hours upon hours (Zhang, Daim, and Zhang, 2021).
Although TikTok is often viewed as a negative for Generation Z, there are some positive impacts on their mental health with the app. Since this platform is so huge, there is an assortment of people on it, ranging from dancers to doctors. There are several videos by licensed professionals raising awareness for mental health disorders on the app, providing insight into the symptoms and ways to treat these disorders. TikTok also provides a sense of community by allowing users to connect with and follow people around the world with the same interests or hobbies. This explains why TikTok gained such rapid popularity while individuals were quarantined in 2020 due to COVID-19, an extremely difficult and lonely time for Gen Z and other social media users. According to an LA Times interview with UCLA Professor John Piacentini, the pandemic showed the psychological world that, “teens and young adults have an increased need for peer interaction and a higher sensitivity to social exclusion,” (Amato, 2022). This all further proves that, although TikTok ruthlessly attempts to keep you on their app, sometimes it’s exactly what someone needs to get them through a difficult time.
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