Mar 22, 2024 - Technology

TikTok's addictive algorithm: 17% of kids scroll app "almost constantly"

Share of U.S. teens saying they use social media apps or sites daily
Data: Pew Research Center; Chart: Alice Feng/Axios

American teens — by a large margin — use YouTube more than TikTok. But they're more likely to scroll through the ByteDance-owned app "almost constantly," according to Pew Research Center polling.

Why it matters: The stat points to how addictive and unhealthy TikTok's endless feed of videos can be for teens.

Zoom in: There's suddenly a roaring national debate over fears about teens' privacy, their data security — and all the misinformation going straight to their phones.

  • Citing national security concerns, Congress is pushing to force the platform's Chinese parent company to sell TikTok or face a ban.
  • A ban — though unlikely anytime soon — would force a massive shift in how millions of Americans spend their time.
  • "It's of course possible that people will replace TikTok time with YouTube time or Instagram time," psychologist Jean Twenge says. "However, TikTok's algorithm is particularly effective at getting you to spend more time on it."

Between the lines: A study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that new TikTok accounts were shown self-harm and eating disorder content within minutes of scrolling.

  • Suicide-related videos popped up within 2.6 minutes.
  • Eating disorder content popped up in 8 minutes.

Reality check: It's not just TikTok. Teen mental health started to plummet years before the app launched in 2016.

What they're saying: Top social media companies say they've made efforts to curb the crisis.

  • Asked for comment by Axios, TikTok pointed to community guidelines that say: "We do not allow content that may put young people at risk of exploitation, or psychological, physical, or developmental harm."
  • A YouTube spokesperson passed along blogs explaining the platform's "expert-backed approaches to eating disorder content and limiting certain types of recommendations."
  • Meta said it has "well over 30 tools we have released" to help parents and teens manage Instagram and Facebook.
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