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A picture taken on January 21, 2021 in Nantes, western France shows a smartphone with the logo of Chinese social network Tik Tok. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP) (Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

There's A Scientific Reason You Can't Stop Watching TikToks

The app is totally in your head.

LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

It’s an all-too-familiar scene: You pull up TikTok to check out a video a friend said you just have to see, and then you somehow wind up on your “For You” page. Cut to hours (and plenty of scrolling) later, and you’ve completely forgotten about whatever video brought you to the app in the first place. Avid TikToker and college student Chelsea Diaz, 19, tells Elite Daily she spends about two hours a day on the app: “When I wake up, TikTok. Before I go to bed, TikTok.”

You figure it’s the “special sauce” of the TikTok algorithm keeping you on the app for so long, but that’s not the whole story. TikTok operates so much differently than other social media sites, especially when it comes to social interaction — or lack thereof. According to recent research, using TikTok is essentially you engaging with yourself.

In an October 2020 paper, Aparajita Bhandari, a communications graduate student focused on social media at Cornell University, and Sara Bimo, who has a master's degree in science and technology studies from York University, explored how TikTok operates differently from other social networking apps. According to Bhandari and Bimo, traditional apps like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram “represent, underline, and intensify real-world social interactions and transform them into digital equivalents.” The purpose of these apps is to provide a platform to interact with others, and users are encouraged to befriend other users. People engage with their networks using tools like comments, likes, and direct messages.

When it comes to TikTok, that social expression differs. TikTok primarily encourages users to interact with either an algorithm that provides highly-personalized videos from other creators (i.e., what shows up on your For You page), or create their own content. When you use TikTok, you’re essentially only interacting with yourself. Bhandari and Bimo refer to this as your “algorithmized self.” (This is in contrast to the “networked self,” which is how you engage on other apps through interactions with people.)

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On TikTok, rather than virtually connecting with friends like you would on Snap or IG, you’re more likely to be scrolling through videos solo. Bhandari tells Elite Daily young TikTokers she spoke to said they follow fewer accounts on TikTok as compared to other apps. “People were saying that they really don't follow people they know offline,” she says.

Since the TikTok algorithm will always keep videos coming your way, you don’t have to follow hundreds or thousands of accounts to find content you enjoy. “It's a different view of what the ‘social’ aspect of social media is. Rather than interacting with people you know, it's really this emphasis on personal identity and personas — you're interacting with yourself over and over,” Bhandari explains.

As for why it’s so hard to peel yourself away when you’re scrolling TikTok at 1 a.m., there’s emerging research that indicates your brain reacts more positively to these highly-personalized videos than it does to generalized videos. In a May 2021 study, researchers conducted an experiment with 30 student participants in China. They recorded the students’ individual brain activity as they watched both personalized videos recommended by the TikTok algorithm, as well as generalized videos TikTok plays when you first join the app. The research suggests TikTok’s algorithm actually reinforces video-watching behavior in your brain.

In the study, researchers found that the part of the brain that plays a role in reward cognition “showed significant positive activation in response to the [personalized videos],” which means your reward center is likely activated more as you watch videos curated for you by TikTok. Personalized videos also activate a part of the brain that helps you focus more on them, as compared to how you would more passively watch a generalized video.

The last piece of the puzzle is that watching personalized videos also seems to decrease activity in the part of your brain thought to be involved in exhibiting self-control. So, it’s no wonder it’s hard to stop swiping through video after video. Diaz experiences this all the time on the app, and she doesn’t expect this information of how the brain responds to the algorithm to change her ways. “Once I’m on [TikTok], I don’t want to get off because what if the next video is so interesting?” she says. “I’m never gonna see it again!”

Basically, it’s a perfect storm in your brain that keeps you glued to the app for hours. And for TikTok stans, that’s what they like.

Studies referenced:

Bhandari, A. and Bimo, S. (2020) TikTok and the “Algorithmized Self”: A New Model of Online Interaction, https://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/spir/article/view/11172/9856

Hu, Y. et al. (2021) Viewing personalized video clips recommended by TikTok activates default mode network and ventral tegmental area, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811921004134?via%3Dihub

Experts:

Aparajita Bhandari, communications graduate student focused on social media at Cornell University, B.S. Psychology, University of Toronto