Reporter’s Notebook: Drifting Away

tiktok pic

Lost in social media’s addictive pull 

“Get off your phone. I can see your brain deteriorating.”

Most teens have probably heard something along the lines of this comment. From TikTok, the video-sharing app, to Snapchat, there are a multitude of issues with the social media universe, from privacy concerns to the collecting of personal data. These apps also have a way of sucking in their users. 

I find myself constantly scrolling through social media networks when I should be studying for that math test or walking my dog. I try to find a sense of entertainment — usually something to bring me joy or make me laugh — that I can’t get in real life. If I can’t find it on one app, I move to the next.

On Jan. 4, after finishing six hours of instruction online because my high school began January remotely in response to the latest COVID-19 outbreak, I closed my computer and opened TikTok. I couldn’t even tell you why I decided to go to that app instead of checking my messages, where at least I could communicate with people.

As I entered TikTok, I found myself at its “For You” page, which the app curates for you. TikTok says its “system recommends content by ranking videos based on a combination of factors — starting from interests you express as a new user and adjusting for things you indicate you’re not interested in, too — to form your personalized For You feed.”

The first video I came across “for me” offered tips on hair growth. I ended up “liking” the video, which took me to another video about hair — this one about different types of cuts. I hit “like” again, then resumed scrolling. Next, I came to a video by TikToker itsbyalexis called “Day in the life living in NYC.” How I got here, I couldn’t tell you, but I had just spent 20 minutes of my day scrolling. I wondered how I was going to even get my homework done. I can easily spend an hour alone scrolling through TikTok’s “For You” page. 

The way TikTok describes the page, it clearly seems to me that the company wants users spending long periods of time on the app. Recently, I have been interested in restaurants to visit in New York City. So my whole “For You” page lists restaurants in the city.

Ben Smith, the media columnist for The New York Times, confirmed my suspicions in a story published last month. 

A document he obtained about TikTok’s algorithm “explains frankly that in the pursuit of the company’s ‘ultimate goal’ of adding daily active users, it has chosen to optimize for two closely related metrics in the stream of videos it serves: ‘retention’ — that is, whether a user comes back — and ‘time spent,’” Smith wrote. “The app wants to keep you there as long as possible.” 

I have watched social media platforms evolve, becoming more addictive and socially painful — whether it’s seeing my friends at gatherings without me or just seeing other people having fun.

Every year there is a new “trendy” app. 

Last year, the photo-sharing app Poparazzi was hot. This app was basically Instagram, but with the photos of you posted by others. “Your friends are your paparazzi and you are theirs,” according to the app’s description. Poparazzi made me realize just how uncomfortable I was with growing up in such a technologically advanced society. 

Poparazzi was a big topic of conversation with my friends — how this app hijacked our ability to enjoy each other. Some of us wouldn’t get off our phones at all because we were so invested in who was “popping” a photo of us. I began to ask myself: “Is this how I want to spend my time?”

Often at gatherings, I find myself encouraging friends to take phone breaks. Everywhere I look, everyone is hunched over, looking at their phones. Do I want to remember my high school experience through a screen? No. But do I want to be that annoying mom-figure friend? The answer is also “no.” 

An easy solution would be to surrender our phones, pile them on the lunch table at school and leave them there until we are finished socializing, or simply hide them from each other. It’s never easy, but I don’t want to waste the time on my phone — time that could be used for making memories.

One thought on “Reporter’s Notebook: Drifting Away

  1. I want to compliment Lily for taking such a meaningful look at over-attachment to social media.

    It’s interesting that she discussed the FOMO [fear of missing out] phenomenon of seeing images on TikTok or Snapchat of “gatherings without me, or other people having fun.” In my experience, young people in groups look a lot more like the photo included with the story — a few or a group at a restaurant or coffeehouse, each one hunched over a phone, ignoring the others. What kind of fun is that?

    Lily is right that the best thing to do is to leave the phones at the door. In the college classroom where I teach, all phones are silenced and out of sight — in a backpack on the floor, a coat pocket, etc. — and that works great. Young people are still perfectly capable of forgetting their phones for the duration of a class and engaging with each other and the course material in substantive, joyful ways.

    There’s hope yet, but we older folks have to join their efforts by putting our phones away, too.