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The Dartmouth
May 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Gart: In Defense of TikTok

It’s time to face a harsh reality about our study habits. TikTok isn’t the problem — we are.

Like most adults across the world, my dad isn’t necessarily a tech whiz. He’s called me up before in efforts to figure out how to turn on the TV, install a new iPhone app or create a Spotify playlist. Of course, I happily oblige (although I couldn’t help being a little frustrated when he somehow managed to turn his phone’s default language to Croatian). Yet there is one element of his relationship with technology that drives me up a wall. For someone who spends hours of their daily routine on their phone, he’s intensely critical of me, and my other siblings, for the time we spend on our devices. 

Of course, the current ire of parents everywhere is TikTok, the short-form video sharing app based in China. Since its entrance to the mobile scene in late 2016, TikTok has rapidly become the world’s most used app, running laps around even the most formidable competitors. In the United States alone, TikTok has over 80 million users and raked in upwards of $500 million in revenue in 2020. And yet, the most startling statistic comes from the app’s customers: the average user watches over an hour and a half of content per day

So, it’s only natural that the reaction to this app has been knee-jerk. Particularly with TikTok’s close association with the Chinese government and its shady data practices, people from around the country have almost universally condemned the app. It’s become the symbol of phone addiction and spoon-fed content, cooked up in a foreign lab to hook vulnerable kids to their handheld devices. And yet, while I can’t speak to TikTok’s data concerns, there is a glaring hole in these condemnations that I can’t help but notice. 

This summer, in an effort to channel some live-in-the-moment, appreciate-the-world-around-you energy, I deleted TikTok from my phone. My screen time initially dropped by about an hour a day, but within a week, it was right back to pre-deletion levels. Without realizing it, I’d begun surfing Instagram and Twitter significantly more, perfectly filling in the hole left by TikTok. When I decided to delete those apps, too, I found myself casually scrolling through LinkedIn or sneaking YouTube videos on my computer. 

What I began to realize was this: The internet has a million different ways to distract us. Sure, deleting an app we spend a lot of time on might feel good originally, but it doesn’t solve the root problem of our distractedness — it just slaps a band-aid over a significantly larger problem. In fact, upon deleting TikTok, I actually found my technology use to be even more unhealthy. I’d mindlessly scroll through content I didn’t even care about, wasting away hours every day with absolutely no upside. TikTok didn’t deserve any blame for my too-high screen time — I was going to go on my phone whether or not I was booting up a specific app. 

In fact, TikTok is actually exceptionally good at catering the content it presents to their millions (billions?) of users. While Instagram Reels seems to throw at me whatever raunchy content gets the most views, TikTok owes its meteoric success to an algorithm that does a fantastic job of presenting relevant content to its users. When I hop onto TikTok, almost all the videos I receive are mind-bogglingly delicious looking food recipes or almost-famous hipsters recommending their favorite indie songs. Other apps, on the other hand, simply zero in on the most outrageous content they encounter — and as a result, successful creators are often extremely controversial and lack the substance that many TikTok creators boast. 

Of course, I’m not arguing that we should all binge TikTok like there’s no tomorrow. Like anything, the app is best consumed in moderation, something that people clearly have a hard time doing. Unfortunately, maintaining a healthy balance with these apps is super difficult — but it’s not impossible. 

The key to using TikTok (and our phones in general) in a healthy way? Admitting we’re not Nelson Mandela. We’re going to slack off, no matter how many Novack coffees we chug beforehand. Being aware of that, and incorporating it into a study routine, is an extremely effective way to actually get work done. Instead of sneaking phone time in between math problems, block out a few minutes to surf NBA instagram or @how_kev_eats on TikTok. Then, put the phone down, work for a few minutes and repeat. Or, instead, put your phone on airplane mode. After a while, when you inevitably cave and reconnect to WiFi to check Cardi B’s latest Twitter outburst, don’t think of it as a moment of weakness. Your focus battery simply ran out, and you’re now giving it a chance to recharge. 

By being realistic about our own attention spans, we can change our whole perspective on TikTok and beyond. Instead of being a source of distraction, we can use it as a fun, quick break between blocks of studying. Of course, it’s also important to admit that every once in a while, we’ll all still get sucked into our phones for a few hours. But being conscious of the inevitability of these periods is the first step to a healthy relationship with social media. 

So merry TikTok surfing to all, and remember: Don’t post anything that your grandma wouldn’t approve of. 

Or do. I’m not your grandma.