While inspiring creativity and fostering online communities, apps like TikTok raise concerns about potential harm to users’ health.
By ANDREW DUNNE
Since Jinnet Paola Pedraza (Pao_la_Periodista) first downloaded TikTok in 2019, she has become one of the social media site’s biggest advocates and more popular users. Her short video reels about 2021 mass protests in Colombia went viral in the global TikTok community.
Pedraza installed TikTok because her daughter had talked about how much fun the app was. The 37-year-old Pedraza, a journalism researcher originally from Colombia and now living in Spain, wanted to find out more about the content that so appealed to her child.
With the world in lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic, the pair used the app to post video reels about how both were adjusting to life indoors. Then, as demonstrations erupted in Colombia over tax rises, healthcare changes and other issues, Pedraza found a niche: posting updates from Spain about the public outcry in her home country.
‘I discovered that TikTok was a valuable tool that could serve to transform societies – beyond dances, trends and challenges,’ she said.
When Pedraza recorded her first video, she had 100 followers. Today, nearly 25 000 get her daily updates.
Pedraza is sharing her insights as part of new EU-funded research into the impact of TikTok on Gen Z: the ‘‘zoomers’’ who have grown up surrounded by social media.
The initiative is led by Dr Paolo Gerbaudo, a cultural sociologist at the Scuola Normale Superiore, an Italian teaching centre established by Napoleon in 1810. The project, called ‘TikTok and Generation Z’ or TKTKGEN, began in January 2022 and runs until the end of this year.
Through analysis of social media sites and focus groups in Europe and China, where TikTok originated, Gerbaudo wants to understand more about these second-generation platforms characterised by video sharing. He’s focusing on why and how young people use TikTok.
A reason they have abandoned traditional social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in favour of TikTok is its more positive content, according to Gerbaudo.
In contrast to the febrile exchanges characteristic of Twitter, TikTok from the start presented itself as a force for good – its unique algorithm able to make precise predictions about the type of content a user would find enjoyable.
Gerbaudo thinks that this approach probably resonates better with Gen Z, which he says is on the lookout for more uplifting material.
‘Gen Z has grown up with crisis after crisis – from climate change to Covid-19 – which has inevitably shaped their attitudes and beliefs,’ he said. ‘TikTok offers a lens through which to understand youth culture and it seems that this generation has a really different world view, less geared towards confrontation.’
But could an excess of good vibes and motivational messaging also be storing up its own problems for young people?
Gerbaudo is seeking greater understanding of the impact on their mental health of the platform’s ‘‘toxic positivity’’ – constant pressure to be happy and share only the positive aspects of life.
Concerns also exist over screen addiction. While little is currently known about how TikTok affects its users, experts warn that the platform’s unique algorithm and 15 to 30-second videos could have serious consequences for people’s state of mind in the long run.
Professor Anders Grøntved of the University of Southern Denmark is breaking new ground with one of the most in-depth studies to date of the impact of increased screen time.
He coordinated a six-year project examining the effects of digital screen use on mental health, sleep and physical activity. Called SCREENS, the EU-funded initiative ended in January this year.
Whereas around 15 years ago researchers relied on questionnaires to determine people’s screen time, typically asking how long they spent on a personal computer or in front of a television, nowadays a new approach is needed.
The SCREENS team designed apps to track smartphone usage and measure people’s movements, sleep quality and stress levels. While screen time has clearly increased, the health implications are less easy to quantify, according to Grøntved.
Still, by combining data collected from nearly 400 people across Denmark with input from the fields of public health and behavioural science, the team did shed light on how time spent online is affecting society, particularly children.
Project results show that, when screen time was reduced to an hour a day, physical activity among children and young people increased substantially.
During the week, physical activity increased by 45 minutes a day on average and on the weekend by 73 minutes.
‘We really didn’t expect that large an effect,’ said Grøntved. ‘We need to find better options for young people to spend time together face-to-face instead of on their screens.’
With these findings, he’s now working with local schools to increase the provision of afterschool activities.
For adults, the positive impact on physical activity was not as obvious because they tended to replace one sedentary screen-time activity with another. Adults did, however, report better sleep and an improvement in general mood and wellbeing.
In sum, the project confirmed some of the suspected challenges posed by greater use of social media poses and has helped to concentrate minds.
‘There are advantages to these technologies, but we need to get a better grip on the immediate and long-term effects they are having,’ said Grøntved.
In his view, this may signal a need for more control of social media use, particularly within families.
A practical step that he suggests parents can take is to set rules limiting screen time at home – and not just for the children. Project data show that, the more time parents spend on screens, the longer their children will too.
Furthermore, the more addicted parents are to their smartphones, the poorer their kids’ mental health. When families put in place limits, people are more active and generally happier.
Grøntved tried it out at his own home with three children and hailed the results.
‘It was a really good experience for my family and gave us a lot more time together at home,’ he said. ‘I would advise people to try it.’
Research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). The article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.