It was 2:30 a.m., and I was lying in bed with my phone in my hand and my TikTok “For You” page fired up.
I knew I shouldn’t be awake. A month into my junior year of high school, my workload was already piling up. If I didn’t get at least a few hours of sleep before my alarm went off, I would pay for it in class the next day.
Close out of the app, I told myself. But my thumbs didn’t stop. I kept swiping, paging through one video after another, like a person possessed.
Eventually, I ended up on a TikTok where someone played the game Subway Surfers while a voice-to-text narrator dictated an obscure Reddit post.
I snapped out of my trance. What the hell was I even watching?
It was at this moment that I knew I needed to take a break from TikTok. I owed it to myself to see how my life, and my mental health, would change without the app and the hold that its algorithm had on me.
I had been using TikTok for nearly three years at this point. I was still in middle school when I first downloaded the app as a way to view and share funny videos. Just a couple of months after I started using it, the COVID-19 lockdown happened, and all of my normal ways of interacting with the world stopped. School went virtual. I stopped playing basketball with my friends. Everything had shut down, so I started to open up TikTok more and more.
Once I began using TikTok more frequently, I found I couldn’t stop. According to my iPhone’s Screen Time reports, at one point I was logging six hours on the app a day.
When the lockdown ended and my world started to open up again, my consumption of TikTok didn’t slow down. It was when I was supposed to be doing homework or studying for a test that I found myself scrolling on the app the most. I attend Davidson Academy, one of the most academically rigorous schools in the nation. The push to excel is high, as is the feeling that you don’t want to waste your opportunity. Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by the pressure of it all, I knew that TikTok was just a few clicks away.
Many of my peers share my experience with TikTok: A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that 67% of 13- to 17-year-olds use TikTok, and 16% said they use the app “almost constantly.” There has been a lot of talk about the negative mental health consequences of social media, and this was one of the main focuses of the recent congressional hearing on TikTok. Many teens—36%, according to Pew—recognize we spend too much time on social platforms, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to bring that time down.
When I decided to take a break from the app, I chose to make it a month-long experiment. My hope was that this time without TikTok would help me to balance school and extracurriculars while finding a healthier way to be on my phone again.
The first week was freeing. I instantly felt more productive and I was getting more sleep. But by the second week, I felt that familiar compulsion creep back in, and craved the dopamine hit from TikTok’s tailored “For You” page.
Fortunately, it was around this time that my history teacher gave my class an assignment: Write a literature review on research in a specific field. I decided to look into the neuroscience and psychology of TikTok, in hopes of better understanding the hold it clearly still had on me.
Because TikTok is relatively new, there’s a limited amount of peer-reviewed literature around it. When I started browsing Google Scholar for answers, a lot of what I came across felt too jargony. But then a term from one paper jumped out at me: “escapist addiction.” It was used by Sebastian Scherr of Texas A&M University and Kexin Wang of Zhejiang University in a paper that argued people mainly use TikTok so they can avoid doing something else.
It was a light-bulb moment. While TikTok is designed to show you what you want to see and keep you on the app for hours, I realized I had my own reasons that were fueling this cycle of addiction. Rather than be mindful of the pressures that were weighing me down, I was using the app to avoid all of the things in my life I did not want to deal with.
I needed to face up to my own reality. I had once thought that I could do everything if only I managed my time better. But I’m not Superman; there are limits to what I can do. I wasn’t giving myself any grace and kept pushing myself beyond my limits. The more pressure I put on myself, the more I sought out TikTok to escape from it.
I never thought that my break from TikTok would turn into something more permanent, but six months have passed, and I still don’t have it on my phone. After the data and privacy concerns that have been raised about the app, I don’t have any desire to continue to use it.
From my time on TikTok, I’ve learned that the app can be a powerful tool for people my age to connect, find community, organize, and learn. But my brush with TikTok’s algorithm has also made me realize how often people don’t understand what they’re getting themselves into on social media. The more these things become embedded in our lives, the less we’re likely to question their impact on us. That’s scary. As users, we can’t always control these companies, but we can try to be mindful of what’s going on when we find ourselves unable to stop checking social media.
Deleting TikTok from my phone hasn’t totally solved my “escapist addiction.” But now, when I end up down a YouTube rabbit hole or catch myself lingering on Instagram for too long, I ask myself why I’m there, and what I want from what I’m doing. I’ve also tried to give myself outlets offline to help relieve some stress, like my school’s tennis team. Playing with my teammates, instead of just scrolling on my phone, feels good.
Occasionally, a couple of my friends will still send me TikTok videos. It’s become kind of an inside joke between us now, because they know I don’t have the app and can’t react to them. It doesn’t bother me. And rather than making me feel like I’m missing out on something, they’ve led us to some great conversations about how we can all be more mindful around our screen time.