If you haven’t jumped on the TikTok bandwagon, you’re one of the few, considering that the mega app now has a reported 150 million American users, and that number is growing. And those who get on TikTok can’t seem to put it down, thanks to the app’s innate ability to seemingly read its subscribers’ minds. Its subtle understanding of a user’s preferences has made it addictive, which begs the question: How is this app so apt at diving into its users’ deepest desires?
You wouldn’t keep scrolling if you didn’t see videos that interested you. That’s why TikTok does everything possible to present you with content that it thinks will reel you in.
The TikTok algorithm is a stream of videos that it thinks will fan your highly personalized interests. This means that each algorithm is different, based on several factors used to gauge your interests – for example, if you’ve liked or commented on a particular video, how many times you’ve rewatched a video and how long you’ve watched a video before scrolling on.
The company says this much on its website, stating that “part of the magic of TikTok is that there’s no one ‘For You’ feed — while different people may come upon some of the same standout videos, each person’s feed is unique and tailored to that specific individual.”
TikTok uses several factors to whittle down your interests and discern what intrigues and also what does not. For starters, TikTok considers how you, as a user, interact with the app. For example, who you follow, videos that you’ve liked, and those that you’ve shared. It also takes into account those that you’ve chosen to “hide” so that you don’t have to view them and those marked “uninterested.” Have you “favorited” a video? Well, that’s taken into account as well, as are the ads you look at and the types of videos that you create, according to Hootsuite.
Additionally, videos that you seek out in “Search” are noted, as are every aspect of videos that you watch, including their sounds and hashtags, so that the app can introduce other videos that will be similarly enticing.
For teens and children, the TikTok algorithm may be too effective. Reading a teen’s innermost thoughts — especially when their vulnerable minds are drawn to harmful content — can lead them to see more problematic content.
Researchers publishing in the 2021 edition of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that TikTok contributed to depression and anxiety in teens and was positively correlated with memory loss. If a TikTok user tends toward sad and upsetting content, that’s what they’ll get, and for young kids and teens, this can motivate dangerous behavior.
In March of 2023, a lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court over the death of 16-year-old Chase Nasca. According to the lawsuit press release, Nasca died by suicide after his account “promoted highly depressive, violent, self-harm and suicide-themed content” when he had not sought it out.
Other reports have shown that apps like TikTok and Facebook give more weight to negative content because it’s more addictive. In documents seen and reported on by The Washington Post, Facebook said that it gives more weight to negative emojis used in the comments, sending users down a rabbit hole of negativity.
If you notice a change in behavior or these warning signs in yourself or people around you, it may be time to seek help. Thoughts of suicide may look different in teens and young adults. But there is help available. Limit your social media use and call or text the suicide hotline at 988.
Ultimately, TikTok’s algorithm is a double-edged sword. It has the power to captivate us with the addictive content we so strongly desire. Yet, we must also be mindful of the unwanted or harmful content that is thrown our way.
Read More: What’s the Deal with Generation TikTok?