“TikTok? You mean that thing the youths use for dance challenges and as an excuse to throw food in each others’ faces? No thanks.”
That was me six months ago. Today, though, I have a much more complicated relationship with the app that’s taking over the (social media) world and the collective attention span of Gen Z.
But my initial rejection of TikTok—I am a grown woman, dammit!—was futile. My job is literally social media. I’m a social media director. So yeah, eventually, according to all the trades, I was going to have to pay TikTok at least a little bit of attention.
And, plot twist, I quickly became hooked.
With more than 800 million monthly active users, 1.9 billion downloads worldwide, and J.Lo and A-Rod doing stuff like this on it, it’s safe to say TikTok is more than just a fluke. In fact, it’s kind of mesmerizing. I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time scrolling the app. But at a certain point down the rabbit hole, I stumbled upon a slew of content that I’ve found, in a word, triggering.
You see, one minute, I’m enthralled with a boy cooking a casual hibachi dinner for his family, and the next, I’m being served a video of a 16-year-old girl showing me what she eats to “stay skinny.” In one specific video, a girl tells us what she eats on a regular day (it mostly consists of seltzer, water and one single Whole30 salad), culminating in a meal plan totaling what must be just 600 daily calories. And this isn’t one rogue, lone post. It’s a disturbing trend. Young girls are endorsing metabolism drops that claim to help lose weight in a matter of days.
There are also reports that TikTok moderators were instructed to hide videos featuring overweight or “conventionally less attractive” people. Body-positive queen Lizzo has claimed that she’s had countless videos of her dancing in her bikini taken down, which is strange, because I've definitely seen thin girls in bikinis doing the same thing.
Body dysmorphic disorder (a mental health disorder where one obsesses over negative views of one’s body that likely conflict with reality) affects one in 50 people, and statistics show that more than half of teenage girls use unhealthy weight-control behaviors (such as fasting and taking laxatives). And guess which age group is the most active on TikTok?
Although I never got an official diagnosis, I am more than able to relate to people who have struggled with body image. And, let’s be honest, most women probably are. I’ve struggled with weight my entire life, and in college, after one of my best friends passed away from cystic fibrosis, I became fixated on “being healthy.” In hindsight, I wasn’t “healthy.” I was obsessive. I was restrictive. I didn’t enjoy life. And while I still work out six times a week and eat healthy (OK, most of the time), I’m not fixated on food, exercise or my weight. I’m probably 20 pounds heavier, but I’m comfortable with myself, and most important, my mental health is where it needs to be.
I’m a 29-year-old who’s done the work to be comfortable in her own skin, and yet, I find myself (here’s that word again...) triggered by these videos of teenagers telling me they eat celery for dinner and work out twice a day. Compiled with the sheer amount of time the average user spends (52 minutes a day) on TikTok, I can’t imagine the negative effect this content is having on younger, more vulnerable minds.
Kristin Wilson, vice president of clinical outreach for Newport Academy, a mental health rehabilitation facility for teens and young adults, tells me that researchers have found that certain regions of teen brains become activated by “likes” on social media, which is why it can become so addictive. Now, marry that with regular consumption of videos showing a workout routine that you should “repeat every day to lose ten pounds in two weeks,” and any parent (or non-parent!) would be right to be concerned.
But with the bad, comes the good. There are times I have truly belly laughed so hard at TikTok videos that I can barely breathe (see: Brittany Broski). And there are also true body positivity advocates doing a lot of cool, empowering things on the platform, like Lizzo, Raeann Lagas, Brittney Vest and Kristina Zias. So, while we can’t rely on tech giants to curtail the toxic content that is put into the universe, there are easy, practical things we can do to protect ourselves, our kids and the body love movement:
1. Moderate your feed
If you are scrolling and see something you find triggering, you can let the app know you no longer want to see content like that.
2. Download Offtime
This genius tool will help you limit your social media consumption by blocking distracting apps and games (that you set, of course). The app allows you to create different “modes” like Work, Family or Me Time to enable access to things you need (e.g., Google Hangouts for happy hour with your friends).
3. Focus on the good stuff