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TikTok is a dopamine factory

By Andrea Silva Santisteban Fort, February 14 2021—

Every student at the University of Calgary has probably heard of TikTok. The video-sharing app was launched in 2016 by a Chinese company and in 2020, it reached 1 billion active users worldwide.

TikTok’s statistics state that 32.5 per cent of its consumers are between the ages of 10 to 19 and 29.5 per cent of them are between the ages of 20 to 29. The app features short videos of lip-synched songs, acting, dances and memes of various sorts. At first glance, TikTok seems like a harmless platform for sharing content and meeting new people. However, this application is a dopamine factory.

Dopamine is an excitatory brain neurotransmitter. To put it simply, it’s a chemical messenger that sends information from your nerve cells to other parts of the body. The brain releases it when we eat food that we crave, drink alcohol or scroll through social media. This important neurochemical boosts our mood and motivation, giving us a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction as part of its reward system. Dopamine is what makes us desire things and take action based on how much dopamine it is expecting to get from a certain activity. It creates reward-seeking loops in the sense that people will seek to repeat pleasurable behavior, such as spending time on Instagram. Our brains reward us for absorbing information the same way our brains reward us for eating good food. By fulfilling a craving, our brains release dopamine, allowing us to feel pleasure and satisfaction. Nevertheless, dopamine wears out. When this happens, we seek more of it — and the addictive cycle continues.

TikTok takes advantage of this pattern of behavior. Users receive a constant stream of new videos — a dopamine stimulation — every 15 seconds to one minute.  In a Forbes article, Dr. Julie Albright, a sociologist specializing in digital culture and communication, mentioned that TikTok users find themselves “in this pleasurable dopamine state, carried away. It’s almost hypnotic, you’ll keep watching and watching.”

TikTok videos are the perfect dopamine boosters. They’re short, engaging and there’s a constant supply of them, which only encourages us to watch more. You end up spending hours on TikTok because your brain can’t seem to get enough of the dopamine rush.

Another factor we have to keep in mind is that TikTok is based on algorithms. When we like a video or start following a content creator, the app creates a profile of us and our preferences. The more time we spend on the platform, the more data it has to recommend to us the types of videos that we like. This takes away our ability to choose, which in a way, prevents us from experiencing choice overload. Instead, we’ll keep watching more content. 

By saying all of this, I am not dismissing the app. TikTok can be a platform where informative and entertaining content is produced, and by being a social network, where communities can be formed. I argue that we need to be aware of the impact of the content we consume, because rare are the times when multi-million-dollar technology companies have our best interests at heart.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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