One night earlier this week, Leena, a 17-year-old from New York, was scrolling listlessly through TikTok when the overly smiley guy came up on her screen. It was around 11 pm, and she had been on the platform for two hours.
“I understand it’s easy to keep watching videos,” the smiley guy said. “And trust me, I’ve been there before. But those videos will still be there tomorrow. Go get some extra sleep, turn your phone off, do yourself that favor, and have a great night.”
The guy was TikToker Gabe Erwin, who has two million followers on the platform, but the video wasn’t posted from his personal account. It came from @TikTokTips, which is run by the company itself. Three other high-profile creators, Alan Chikin Chow (722,200 followers), James Henry (2.7 million followers), and Cosette Rinab (1.6 million followers) – have also made videos encouraging people to turn off the app. ("When's the last time you've been outside?" asks Rinab.)
Not only was the tone of the Erwin video different — earnest, personal, and a little chiding — but so was the content. After all, here was TikTok, an app designed to hook its users with its endless scroll of short, snackable videos, encouraging people to put down their phones.
“It’s interesting because I’ve never seen any other platform do something like that,” explains Leena, who asked that Input not use her last name. Since first downloading TikTok in April 2019, Leena has been using the app on a daily basis, usually for an hour or two a day, either during her lunch break or just before bed.
TikTok declined to answer Input’s questions about the @TikTokTips videos – an extension of the app’s “You're in Control” user safety video series — including specific queries about what conditions would trigger the videos to show up on a user’s For You page, the app’s equivalent of the news feed. But it seems clear that TikTok, with its young user base, is determined to avoid some of the mistakes made by YouTube, which has been accused of targeting children with highly addictive, and sometimes inappropriate, videos.
“The videos make it seem as if they are being good internet citizens.”
And TikTok users can expect to encounter more examples of the “get the heck off our app” video genre. TikTok reveals to Input that, as part of a newly announced initiative, it has partnered with some of its most-followed U.K. creators to create similar prompts to take a time-out. The new videos will star TikTok celebrities Sherice Banton (1.3 million followers), Anna Bogomolova (2.3 million followers), Matthew Mackinnon and Ryan Payne (1.4 million followers), and Charlie, a sausage dog (110,000 followers).
But such moves seem like a cynical attempt at virtue signalling, argues Purdue University academic Colin Gray, who monitors apps’ dark patterns — the tricks used to encourage you to dwell a little longer on their services — and their addictive design.
“This latest development is perhaps a good example of social media apps wanting to have their cake and eat it too,” Gray says. “They first build knowingly addictive patterns into the core of their app, then add patterns that, while quite paternalistic, also make it seem as if they are being good internet citizens.”
While @TikTokTips can be useful in helping users identify potentially addictive behaviors, Gray says, “it doesn’t really address the issues that have made them become addictive in the first place.” Just because someone tells you to turn off your phone, it doesn’t mean you will. An endless stream of videos is likely far more alluring than the gentle recommendation of some of its biggest stars.
“I thought it was funny and kind of sweet that TikTok cared.”
Case in point: Leena’s response to the videos over time. She says she did, in fact, go to sleep the first time she saw the video. “I’d been on TikTok for at least two hours, on and off, and I thought it was funny and kind of sweet that they cared and did that,” she says. It made her think about her use of the app, and her relationship with her phone. “I definitely spend too much time on it,” she says.
But it hasn’t made a lasting change in her behavior. The next day, at lunchtime, Leena was back on TikTok. “I still spend the same amount of time on it as before,” she admits.