The toxicity of TikTok: the link between TikTok and eating disorders

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How is TikTok influencing your mind? As university students, we put so much time and effort into curating every aspect of our lives and minds every day. We learn in order to broaden our intellectual outlook, carefully curate our playlists, choose activities and friends that make us feel good.

We wouldn’t let an algorithm choose these things for us – so why do we spend hours on TikTok, being exposed to content curated for us by an algorithm, totally beyond our control? This does the opposite of broadening our minds; rather, it further entrenches our fixations – it has the power, potentially, to cause us to actively regress in our personal development and mental wellbeing.

People of all ages spend hours a day consuming online content. Social media, in general, both demonstrates and perpetuates society’s fixation on external appearance. Take, for example, Instagram – under their name, users have a page of images that supposedly represent and encapsulate them. We feel we know and can judge a person based solely on these images.

why do we spend hours on TikTok being exposed to content curated for us by an algorithm, totally beyond our control?

This fuels our society’s disproportionate valuation of physical appearance, which is often a major driving force of eating disorders. Recently, Instagram was forced to apologise for an algorithm suggesting harmful content such as “appetite suppressants” to users prone to, or recovering from, eating disorders.

Lockdown has led to a ‘mental health pandemic’ among young people. There has been a considerable increase in eating disorders and relapses. Almost all of the contributory factors have been exacerbated by the lockdown, evidenced by recent tragic deaths, including Nikki Grahame.

TikTok has seen a considerable increase in usage since the start of the pandemic. While other social media allow users more control over the content they view (and thus individuals can choose to avoid content they may find triggering), TikTok’s ‘For You’ page is curated by a sophisticated algorithm which means that users have little control over the content they are viewing. The algorithm selects content based on the user’s viewing patterns – how long you spend watching each video, etc. Within even just a few hours spent on TikTok, the ‘For You’ page comes to know the user scarily well, showing more and more content based on videos that the user subconsciously lingers on for slightly too long.

Thus, it is clear to see how very quickly, the remnants of a mentality that one is trying to break, will quickly resurface: users on the brink of an unhealthy relationship with food are exposed to more and more content of excessive calorie counting, culture, and so on. The algorithm responds to the user’s increasing preoccupation with dieting and body image by feeding them more similar content, perpetuating the obsession. It becomes so easy to fall back into a hole – and it takes it beyond the user’s control. As Mhari Aurora in The Times so pertinently pointed out, it is telling that we are called “users” (rather than ‘consumers’ or customers’ for example): TikTok, and all social media, are designed to be addictive.

Lockdown has led to a ‘mental health pandemic’ among young people.

The effect of the algorithm is polarising. It feeds off and deepens our fixations, our insecurities. It radicalises us within our own opinions and viewpoints, presenting to us a warped world view based on our own unconscious biases. The implications of this go far beyond the self – potentially influencing our worldly outlook and political opinions, and thus more deeply entrenching the divisions in our society.

That is why I chose to delete TikTok: I want to have the choice over my own mind. I do not want my outlook – on the world, on other people, and on myself – to be determined by an algorithm. How can we achieve self-development if we allow ourselves, for hours a day, to partake in this self-perpetuating cycle? I will not outsource the choice – the responsibility – of governing my own mind to an algorithm designed to be addictive and polarising. I want to actively choose every day what I input into my mind – for self-growth, for happiness, to broaden my outlook.

For me, deleting TikTok felt like an important act of re-evaluation and taking back control. I am not saying this is the right decision for everyone – but I implore you, next time you scroll through TikTok, to be aware – what does this tell you about yourself, and how is this influencing your mind?

Image: Franck via Unsplash

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