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A Psychologist Explains Why Everyone is Suddenly On TikTok

It’s not just because we’re bored and have tons of free time in lockdown.
16 May 2020, 1:30am
A Psychologist Explains Why Everyone is Suddenly On TikTok During the Coronavirus Lockdown
Photo: Screenshots taken from TikTok users @khushi05k (left) @avileonardo (centre) and @caughtinacuff (right)

This article originally appeared on VICE India

At one time in the not-so-distant past, TikTok was looked down upon for epitomising cringe culture. Users were regularly subjected to the degrading dissection of Instagram trolls (waddup @emoboisofIndia), with most of us casually partaking in picking fun at the expense of TikTokers’ exaggerated expressions and overly emotional energy. But as the coronavirus and its mandatory quarantines #fliptheswitch on our social lives, we’re suddenly seeing TikTok, and its postmodern, absurdist aesthetic, savage-dance its way into our lives and social media feeds. TikTok has emerged as an inescapable entity, not only because it’s one of the highest downloaded social networking apps in an age of social distancing, but also because we’re seeing some of social media’s elite cross over to these 15-second-long lip-synced videos. From Bollywood celebrities to Instagram influencers to your mom’s friend’s second cousin, it feels like everyone is just TikTok-ing round the clock. Even the World Health Organization and frontline workers are in on this.

But is there an explanation as to why the very same people who loved to hate on the short video-making platform are now all over it? Is it just because we now have so much extra time on our hands? Or is it because reality has become so surreal, the only way to express ourselves is on a similarly surreal part of the internet? We asked Dr Prerna Kohli, a New Delhi-based clinical psychologist and author with a special focus on social media about why TikTok’s public perception suddenly went from cringe to cool in the coronavirus lockdown, and the impact this will have on our behaviour in the long-run.

VICE: Yeah, so why is everyone suddenly hooked to an app they used to hate on?
Prerna Kohli: People’s mental immunity is at its lowest right now, and we’re seeing a spike in anxiety, depression and a fear or phobia of the unknown. We are all going through a wave of loneliness and isolation after being cut off from our friends and the outside world in these unprecedented times. The pandemic may be taking us back to an earlier stage of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as a society. Assuming that we were moving towards a state of self-actualisation—which is the desire to be the best versions of ourselves, with society’s shift towards mindfulness, meditation, and seeking spirituality in daily lives—the pandemic could leave us stuck trying to fulfill needs of self-esteem or love and belonging.

Which is why people are turning to apps like TikTok because it provides instant gratification, applause and appreciation. Younger generations who have grown up in the social media culture crave this even more after being cut off from the external world, so they turn to a trending, visual-based, reactive app like TikTok.

Okay, but what makes TikTok the go-to and not other social media?
The Freudian school of thought theorises that our unconscious mind channels the impulses of the id, which knows no sense of right or wrong, ego or superego, which have more of a moral compass. TikTok has emerged as a safe space, where people can be authentic and real, without feeling this need to wear a social mask. So using TikTok may be a way to overcome any unconscious feelings of a lack of self-worth or identity in these uncertain times. The app is easy to use and the content doesn’t require much talent or know-how or even literacy, allowing users to access all kinds of crowds. It’s a quick bandaid for your boredom, where your actions are mostly rewarded and you receive positive conditioning for being yourself. Nobody’s interested in the make-up you’re wearing, only in the message you’re conveying.

TikTok then becomes addictive because it creates an increased desire to get likes and attention from others. It works on a reward-and-punishment mechanism. Getting likes or views is the reward, while not getting enough feels like a punishment. This motivates the user to engage with the app to increase the reward while reducing the punishment.

This could also be an extrapolation of trying to feel included in a group, attention-seeking behaviour, and the constant need to feel seen when you can’t access the outside world. It’s a platform to demonstrate someone's creativity in a way that was never seen before, nor considered much of a talent. However, once an individual uploads a TikTok video or starts watching videos, they get into a reward loop or random reinforcement schedule. This means that if they get more likes, they will want to keep getting more, and if they have got less likes, they will keep trying to get more likes next time. If they are watching videos, they will keep waiting for the next best video that might come up, especially since the algorithms take into account their interests.

So how does using the app help us feel better about the current situation?
Using TikTok triggers a dopamine release in our brains. Many neurologists argue that the brain areas activated when we get likes or compliments on such social media platforms are the same as when we have sex and orgasm. However, getting likes or views on apps like TikTok are a form of intermittent reinforcement. This basically means the person is rewarded for their content or appearance, but at irregular intervals without any guarantee. This lack of stability on social media makes the rush of happiness more difficult to manage, while making the person a dopamine seeker who is always trying to achieve the same kind of high once they’ve felt it. This is similar to how it feels when you win random cashback coupons from apps like Google Pay. You won’t always get a scratch card that gives you the cashback, but it’s an added feature that compels you to keep coming back to the app.

How will using TikTok affect our behaviour?
While self-esteem, self-worth and feeling loved are necessary needs, building a sense of identity and worth through TikTok is very limiting, and could keep us stuck in a vicious cycle of seeking rewards that are not permanent and don’t serve any purpose. The exceptions are those people who might actually make a career out of it, but that's very rare. The use of this kind of platform should be made with restraints, which is again hard to do once people get used to the high of likes. This can lead to attention seeking behaviour, where people start determining their worth based on how many views they get, which in many cases can lead to an increase in the anxiety or depression they are already feeling. It can also get obsessive at a time like this where our routines are disrupted. In some cases, it could also trigger psychological stalking, where we feel constantly watched and scrutinised by the public. TikTok also helps us communicate ourselves better through body language since it emphasises the use of actions over words to be entertaining and relatable.

Will it make us dependent on TikTok even after the situation improves?
Fortunately, I believe that when our routine is restored, and we go back to our busy, productive lives, we will automatically realise that we don’t have much time or use for TikTok as we did during the lockdown, so I don’t think we will develop a long-term dependence on it. It’s a temporary way to put ourselves in the public view when we can no longer socialise in public, a way to boost our self-esteem and distract ourselves from the war-like situation we are facing.

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