Josephine Mathias: A struggling generation in a maddening time is finding itself on TikTok

TikTok is rapidly ascending to social media dominance among young people. What is it about this app that makes it so addictive — and politically potent?

By: Josephine Mathias

Thanks to technological advancement and the use of social networks as a form of communication, we are more connected than ever before in human history.

As it turns out, what this really means is that my parents now have an entire world of peers to compare me to. (If Tolu from Nigeria can become a chemical engineer at 12, why can’t I?)

Social networks have connected millions around the world, and yet young people like myself seem to be feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. We had lots of relationships with people online, but they were generally of a low quality.

Enter COVID-19. Throw mandatory lockdowns into the mix and you have a recipe for emotional exhaustion. It's a lot. For everyone.

And in a time of unprecedented isolation and uncertainty, the need for authenticity in the way we socialize has led many young people in particular to become hooked on the hottest new social media app — TikTok.

TikTok, owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance Ltd., boasts more than 100 million active users in the U.S., a number that appears to be growing at an extraordinary clip. Twitter and Facebook are for the olds: TikTok is the network on the rise, and though it may still be obscure in some (ahem, older) circles, the app already boasts extraordinary political potency. Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order effectively banning the social media network in America, claiming the site was a national security threat. The ban, which would go into effect next month, prompted Microsoft to attempt to purchase TikTok’s operations in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand. It seems reaching out to young people is a low priority for Trump, who continues to find new ways to piss off the younger generation.

What explains the app’s popularity is deeper than mere user statistics can show. TikTok is one of the few social media apps that’s structured in a way that allows openness and incentivizes authenticity. It’s a great way for young people to form the deeper connections they so desperately need.

From an outsider's perspective, TikTok seems to be filled with teens and young adults who post cringy short clips of dances and lip-syncs to trendy songs. That’s … not entirely wrong. But when you take a closer look, you’ll see that there is another side of TikTok, a side that involves authenticity, emotional vulnerability, deeper connections, and frank disclosures about challenges with mental health. This is why users seem to have formed a strong attachment to the app — and raises questions about the way we currently use social media.

So what is TikTok?

TikTok is a social media app used for making and sharing short videos. The app, which was originally called, became what it is today after ByteDance Inc., acquired in 2018 and merged it with its own app, Douyin. Since then, TikTok has managed to surpass Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube’s monthly installs. It’s a predominantly youth-centric app; 60 per cent of its users are between the ages of 17-24, and they use the app, on average, for at least an hour per day.

Unlike other social media applications, the TikTok landing page doesn’t contain content from people the user knows or follows. Instead, the app starts with a “for you” page containing a few trendy videos based on things like location, gender, and age and the history of the videos the user has engaged with previously.

This is why TikTok is so addictive. Users get a dopamine hit every time they see a post they like.

According to Kayley Reed, founder at the Hermana Agency, and an Alberta-based social media strategist and marketing expert, the biggest draw of TikTok is that users don’t have to follow anyone to do well on the app. Because the algorithm shows content primarily to strangers, users get a fair shot at popularity.

“It's a faster growth curve than a platform like Instagram which primarily shows your content to people who are already following you,” she says. “Everyday people can share their talents or personality on TikTok, and become an overnight star.”

According to Reed, the fact that someone can stay relatively anonymous and still do well on the app incentivizes authenticity, which is something that other social media networks like Instagram and Facebook seem to lack. She argues that TikTok’s separation from the eyes and feeds of friends and family “encourages more authentic posting without judgment from your inner circle, especially among teens and younger users who may not want to fully show all sides of themselves on apps where their parents might follow them.”

On TikTok, you can be the person you are when no one is watching because, in a way, nobody is. And since the algorithm only shows your video to those who will most likely enjoy it, users feel more comfortable experimenting and being themselves on the app.

COVD-19 and subsequent lockdowns are where things got a lot more interesting for TikTok-ers.

With more time to kill and the reduced risk of embarrassing displays, many young people flocked to TikTok to share their struggles with mental health while being stuck at home. These videos, which discussed, among other things, their shared feelings of powerlessness, loneliness, anger, and isolation, quickly became very popular on the app. This encouraged mental-health experts to join in the conversation by creating short informational videos to help young people better understand their emotions and find healthy coping mechanisms. The videos are then sent directly to those who most need it.

The freedom to be vulnerable and authentic on TikTok gives young people a glimpse into the lives of others around the world in a way that feels more intimate than Facebook and Instagram — while also scratching the itch for human connection that was lost during the pandemic. In a time where they need it the most, young people are opening up to each other. They’re finding connections and similarities in their struggles, sharing solutions, and validating each other’s feelings.

The generation most drawn to the app, Gen Z, is experiencing an early adulthood rife with social, political, and economic upheaval. They feel that they have no sway or influence over those who hold power in society. They are subject to a financial crisis that crushed their hopes of a stable future.

And now during this generation’s formative years, they’re stuck at home.

Lockdowns have given them a lot of time to think about these issues, to reflect on them, to create their own perspectives — perspectives that aren’t influenced by the mainstream media, or the whims of those who want to maintain power. It’s also a perspective that isn’t subject to the usual scrutiny of your friends and family. TikTok is the fora in which Gen Z is creating its own collective political identity.

Take, for example, a recent prank in which thousands of TikTok users (and K-pop fans) allegedly called in false ticket orders to a Donald Trump rally to cause empty seats. Young people found their own way to make a point. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Trump decided to ban the app in the U.S. only weeks afterwards.

In response, TikTok filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration in which they argued the ban had more to do with politics than the national security concerns raised by the administration. 

Of course, while social media can be empowering, it also poses risks for an alienated generation. Reed, who credits her career to the existence of social media, also dedicates her time to educate people on the negative effects social media can have.

“I think it's critical we instill conversations on the dangers and toll these apps can take on our mental health. We can’t ignore the fact that there is a whole generation of young people growing up with their identities intrinsically tied to their digital selves. We need to provide more education for young people on how to set boundaries and use these apps in a positive way, otherwise, we will be facing a generation with more mental-health problems and burnout than ever before.”

In the meantime, we’re largely stuck at home for the foreseeable future, and the generation that is coming into adulthood in this moment of insanity needs to embrace more authentic ways to interact. The concerns around TikTok are real — but so is our need for deeper communication. We will need to meet that need somehow.

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