National Comment Comment

The toxicity of TikTok

How TikTok's unavoidable algorithm has helped cultivate new forms of toxic online personas and trends

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After spending the best part of the year actively avoiding what I initially thought to be a pre-teen crazed app full of cringe-worthy dance routines, I eventually conceded to my lockdown induced boredom and downloaded TikTok.

If, somehow, you’ve been strong enough to fight the overwhelming pressure to not add TikTok to your ever-growing collection of social medias, the app creates an algorithm based on each users’ individual interests; the more videos you watch relating to a particular topic or theme, the more videos it will show you relating to that. The main concept of the app is that you cannot control which videos the ‘For You Page’ presents to you, it is simply based on what you have watched before and there is no warning of what video will appear next.

On my first initial scrolls through the app, I came to understand its hype; you can unknowingly spend hours scrolling through a plethora of videos of 60 seconds or less. From pranks, to DIY tutorials, to travel videos, there is something to appeal to any imaginable interest. But, of course, no social media platform could remain untainted by the toxic culture of the online world, and eventually I hit a continuation of videos regarding mental illnesses; not the positive, awareness drawing kind, the kind that can set you back to a mindset that you have spent years trying to destroy. Admittedly, the line between help and hindrance when it comes to mental health is ambiguous; something that may be a trigger to one person, could be a relatable comfort to another, a reminder that they’re not alone. But unfortunately, due to the app’s design, you’re denied the opportunity to even choose between the two. And even if you give your attention to a video bringing awareness to mental health, the next may not discuss it in such an encouraging manner; computers may have progressed a long way, but they are not yet smart enough to differentiate between positivity and negativity. Some users may also generously write “trigger warning” in the caption, but sometimes by the time you’ve seen the caption, the 15-second-long clip is over.

After one random video regarding eating disorders appeared on my ‘For You Page’, I began to notice more popping up; one moment I’d be laughing at a cat jumping over toilet rolls, and in simple solitary scroll I’d quickly be unsettled by somebody joking about their eating disorder. I understand the coping mechanism behind making jokes out of your problems, but for many viewers, these jokes can be detrimental; they are perhaps best left unshared with the internet.

These videos eventually became plastered across my ‘For You Page’, with some almost providing viewers with ‘tips’ on how to worsen and aggravate their disorder; I do not believe that this was the initial intention, but for anybody already in that negative mindset, it is easy to interpret it this way. And when some, assumingly young, viewers did not understand the joke, others failed to educate them, suggesting it was better that they remained ‘out of the loop. It is almost branded as an elite and exclusive club; only contributing to the toxic Hollywood narrative of the glamorisation of eating disorders. And yet, if the young and curious commenters fail to receive their answers there, there is no doubt that they will search for them elsewhere, perhaps leading them to even darker discoveries.

TikTok is certainly not the first social media site to breed a toxic and unhealthy culture regarding mental health and eating disorders. There is a dark side to all of our favourite platforms, but it is easier to avoid on the likes of Instagram. On TikTok you don’t seek it out, it seeks you out. Social media and mental health are frenemies; on one hand, it has enabled awareness, given a voice to those struggling, and subsequently normalised living with mental health problems - all previously neglected by mainstream media. Yet simultaneously, it has encouraged and cultivated a new and ever-evolving form of toxicity, now reaching younger audiences and preying on their naivety and insecurities. And for those in recovery, it is harmful to their progress. Users must take responsibility for the content they share. We’re continuously reminded to be mindful of our online personas, that what we post now may come back to bite us down the career line, but we often neglect the possible impact of our posts on others.

15 seconds could have life long consequences.

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