My Screen Time notifications are set to Sundays, and they’ll usually pop up on my iPhone with a chipper little buzz while I’m eating a late breakfast or, if I’m feeling industrious that morning, an early lunch, still sweating from the gym. My anxiety will prickle as I tap the notification’s purple hourglass icon, which will reveal a detailed breakdown of the week’s stats. Then I’ll begin to fill out my mental report card based on the findings:
- 9% more screen time this week. (Bad!)
- 7h 36m daily average screen time. (Needs improvement.)
- Most-used apps this week:
- YouTube, 21 hours (Eek!)
- Prime Video, 6 hours (Well, everyone loves “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”)
- TikTok, 4 hours (I’ve got to cut down.)
Overall grade: C-
Next steps: Take more social media breaks.
While I find it jarring to see the reality of my phone usage laid out so starkly, it has helped me cut down my overall screen time from my previous highs of nine hours a day. And while I know I still have work to get my time down further, the report doesn’t quite represent the full picture: All apps are not created equal. I often have my phone on in the background to keep me company with an audiobook or documentary as I work, walk the dog, cook or exercise. This means that while I am using my phone as much as Screen Time reports, there isn’t as much actual screen interaction.
But there is one app that I can’t stay off quite as easily as others: TikTok.
That’s because the app’s content is made up of easily consumed video bits, so once I start watching, it’s hard to stop. That, paired with an algorithm that makes one’s “for you page” tailored exceptionally well to specific interests (Like, really specific. See Black queer forager Alexis Nikole), means that scrolling gets addicting fast for me. This also means that I know that of all the hours I’ve used my phone in the past week, the four hours of screen time that I spent on TikTok were spent being exclusively sedentary.
But is social media, specifically TikTok, addicting? Results from research studies have so far been inconclusive, largely because the app’s creation and subsequent reports about its use are so recent. However, a group of attorneys general across the U.S., including Michigan’s own Dana Nessel, are taking notice of reports suggesting TikTok might be causing physical and mental health issues. As of March 2022, the group has launched a nationwide investigation into its effects on young people.
“Recent reports … raise serious questions among attorneys general across the nation,” writes Nessel in a recent press release. “Ultimately, we are concerned about protecting our youth.”
When I reached out to Nessel’s office for comment, the attorney general addressed TikTok’s impact on a specific demographic: LGBTQ+ youth.
“While I cannot discuss the ongoing investigation I joined with my colleagues across the nation, I can be clear in my concern related to social media’s impact on the mental and physical health of young people, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+,” she tells Pride Source. “We live in a time when everything is shared on social media. Not only does that foster a comparison culture in which our kids are constantly exposed to unrealistic beauty standards, it also exposes them to the hateful rhetoric spewed by those who hide behind keyboards.”
Nessel acknowledged that online engagement can “connect people who otherwise remain disconnected,” but said being online also poses real risks that must be addressed by social media platforms bringing in billions of dollars.
“That is why in addition to the TikTok investigation, my office is also engaged in an investigation into Meta Platforms, formerly Facebook, and we remain firm in our stance that Instagram should not launch a version specifically for children under 13.”
Meta, the company that owns Instagram, has announced intentions to launch an app for children under 13 because they believe it is “the right thing to do,” but has recently paused those efforts.
While at 26 my own Screen Time numbers are high in comparison with adults in general, who on average spend about three-and-a-half hours on screens daily, my seven-and-a-half hours spent scrolling puts me squarely in line with, and even a little under, the rates of teens between 13 and 18 years old according to a Common Sense Media report released this month. But I’m probably not alone with my inflated numbers. Two years into the pandemic, it’s becoming clear that social media usage in general has spiked. In fact, COVID-19 is the reason that many people — myself included — joined the app in the first place.
In the case of 18-year-old, Cadillac-based Baker College student and TikToker Kia Glines (@strxberry.sh0rtcake), the app was a reprieve from the monotony of the pandemic.
“I was really bored — especially when the pandemic hit, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s really nothing for me to do.’ My family was really strict about it, especially my mom, and I wasn’t allowed to see anyone for a couple of months — almost a year it felt like,’” she says.
“But I could scroll, and I could talk online. I’ve always been able to make online friends; it was really easy for me to click with people,” Glines adds. “But seeing that everyone else was going through the same thing as me and that they were all talking about it, it really helped me a lot.”
And connect she did. Glines identifies as a lesbian, and one of her most popular posts was a call to connect with other LGBTQ+ people in Michigan that reached more than 130,000 users. She says that she even made international friends to whom she regularly sends letters and packages.
Outside of offering a light reprieve from quarantine, Glines says that the TikTok community has supported her through more serious matters like homophobia, misogony, and when she felt that she was romantically reacting to men because of “comphet” or compulsory heterosexuality — a term popularized by Adrienne Rich’s 1980 book “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.”
“There are moments when I’m like, ‘Wow, why am I attracted to this man? I would never be with him.’ And then I’d see other people [on TikTok] and they’re like, ‘No, this is normal. This is a perfectly normal thing,’ and they’ll validate who you are. And that was really helpful to me when I was going through that,” she says. “I was very lucky.”
In fact, there is some evidence to show that LGBTQ+ youth in particular may benefit from participating in social media online because of its community-building and supportive aspects. Michigan TikTok user Anthony Peete, 15, says that they joined in 2017 and have stayed on since because in addition to it sparking their creativity, the “platform is very LGBTQ-centered” and the “representation is amazing.”
“Honestly, I feel there isn’t much that’s negative! I’ve been with TikTok for five years and have never felt unwelcome,” Peete says. “[My mental health] has changed for the better! I feel I am more outgoing than ever!”
Glines added that sometimes TikTok can be the motivating factor to be more social in her personal life, too.
“… The more I started doing it, the more I started interacting with new people,” she says. “And it is fun. It does get me up and ready and putting on my makeup and doing other things that I really want to do, dressing how I want to dress, because it’s like, ‘Well, you can’t go anywhere that people are going to see you [because of the pandemic].’”
Thyaba, who preferred not to share their last name, is a 17-year-old TikTok user from Michigan and also a member of the LGBTQ+ community. They say that they learn something new from TikTok every day and many videos “really lift up my mood,” but that positivity, they add, can depend on the “boundaries people have within social media.”
The reality is that TikTok, as with any community, is multi-faceted and complex. And sometimes, the negativity can be overwhelming. For 12-year-old Rocky Bocci, who joined at 11 years old to talk to friends during the pandemic as well, things didn’t go quite as smoothly.
“I’ve made so many friends using it, and I’m so glad! Unfortunately, I’ve suffered from a lot of hate, bullying and transphobia through it,” Bocci says, adding that the app has negatively impacted their mental health. “It started out awesome, but then people from school found my account and it was kind of … bad.”
When asked what they think Nessel may find in her investigation of TikTok, Bocci admitted that in their experience TikTok was “usually pretty bad, and has a reputation for being so, but some nooks and crannies of the internet are awesome.”
On the subject of TikTok’s reputation for negativity, Glines shared that as positive and welcoming as her experience has been overall, she’s encountered her fair share of struggles, too — both from users and in how it’s affected her own mental health.
“There’s definitely a negative side [to TikTok]. I’m in college. I can’t drive yet, so there’s me being in my dorm a lot and there’s not much for me to do. … I’m always scrolling through whether it be TikTok, Facebook, Instagram,” Glines says.
“I’m meeting all of these people I wish I had never met,” she adds. “Especially when I was a lot younger, there were a lot of people on there who [would take] advantage of you, and you don’t realize it because you’re still growing. That really impacted me then and it’s still impacting me, and it did put me in a place mentally where I did have to get a lot of help.”
One 18-year-old LGBTQ+ TikTok user from Michigan who asked to remain anonymous says that at its most negative, TikTok can show hate “coming from LGBTQ+ people specifically because of the way the app matches you with similar people’s content, which can be especially harmful.”
“Despite this, I feel that TikTok hasn’t negatively impacted my mental health nearly as bad as other social media such as Twitter,” they add. “In my experience, Twitter is a lot of fear-mongering and hate to a much greater extent to anything I’ve seen on TikTok.”
Because of her own experiences online, Glines advises minors to stay away from social media altogether. Still, when asked about the attorney general’s investigation, Glines suspects that Nessel will find the answer to be far more “grayscale” than a black-and-white “bad” or “good” verdict for TikTok.
“There are moments where I feel like I’m kind of trapped and this is the only thing that I can do: just sit in my bed and scroll. And it makes me feel kind of bad about myself,” Glines says. “There are all these things that I could be doing and, instead, I’m choosing to sit here, and I look at the time and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I just wasted an hour that I’m never going to get back on social media. But the app really helps build a sense of community. It’s really good at making your feed match with the kind of person you are and that can really help you feel less alone.”