Salvo 12.29.2023 9 minutes

The TikTok Spiral

Cyber bullying at high school

Trauma dumping on the for you page sucks young girls into a pit of self-loathing.

The winning TikTok formula is videos produced by teens for their peers. In that sense, it is hugely kid-friendly. Yet in 2019, TikTok paid a settlement for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Then in 2021 TikTok users were notified by the app they were due compensation after an Illinois lawsuit charged TikTok of using a “complex system of artificial intelligence to recognize facial features in users’ videos.” How might that face data be used as part of what’s called the TikTok spiral? And how does this female-dominated platform affect girls?

Spiraling is an actual psychological term for becoming mentally dizzy. TikTok’s “for you page” (FYP) is overwhelming, piping a steady stream of the most viral videos to kids—a big departure from the social media norms of yesteryear, which mostly shared amateurish updates from kids’ subscribed channels. Girls who would normally say hi to friends and show off their pets now get adult content and other non-age appropriate material direct to their inbox. Feeding “smash-innocence” content to kids is part of the TikTok spiral.

From its inception as a lip sync app, TikTok is based in the inherent kid fun of mimicry. The fast-paced stream of exciting music and dance videos is contagious. Creative collaboration is further encouraged not just by hashtags but through such collaborative interactions as duets, which allow multiple users to record over one another’s videos and create mashups. Some hit song is constantly being refashioned or repurposed; interpretative boundaries are endlessly exercised. No one sleeps on TikTok.

It’s a world saturated with an over-abundance of consciousness: self-consciousness, body-consciousness, identity-consciousness. Ideal for getting girls to spiral. Videos designed to provoke envy are common, showing off piercings, tattoos, clothes, a new hair style, making grimaces and grins in the digital mirror. Humor, novelty, and intimate sharing attract a mostly female viewership, and body image content related to gender can be especially compelling.

People have compared “likes” on social media to a continuous dopamine drip, but TikTok is more jacked up: it tightens the emotional screw. It can do this because as Teen Magazine observes: “Every second you hesitate or re-watch, the app tracks you.”

This screenshot shows a comment in response to a post with 314.9K likes by London trans influencer channel tatedalton. TikTok gathers data from the user’s digital face print to push videos from creators with similar demographic indicators, including gender identity. Additional cues TikTok uses are the video’s hashtags, which in this case include #trans #transmasc #nonbinary #dysphoria #lgbt #lgbtq.

In this screenshot, user “Cave” is a bit mystified as to why a video from a trans influencer reappears on each return to the app. But it’s no great mystery: re-watching a video, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, helps determine which kind of videos will be sent to the person’s feed in the future. Digitally captured user data tells TikTok to keep pitching this video to Cave. TikTok zeros in on emotional response in order to push similar but more intense content: “every second you scroll or re-watch a video on the app counts. It takes less than 3 minutes or until the 15th video for the algorithm to understand what a person is feeling and what videos should be recommended next.”

The TikTok spiral, as described in a special Wall Street Journal series, is like digital cocaine. More than just a successful business model, it’s a mode of mental capture. Munmun De Choudhury, an associate professor at the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, notes that TikTok is scraping “trajectories of people’s behavior” and tying that to such things as mental health cues and affective cues—in other words, charting how people react to video content emotionally. Face print technology may collect data for the user’s FYP.

Summarizing a 2018 study of facial images online, Christopher Bergland writes: “Disgust is associated with one facial expression that is universally understood in every culture they examined. According to this study, humans use three different facial expressions to convey fear across cultures. The study also showed that we have four ways to convey surprise, five facial expressions for sadness, and five cross-cultural facial expressions that convey anger.”

TikTok provides the perfect milieu for body-image stressed girls to fixate on their perceived flaws and spiral into pathological habits. The Center for Countering Digital Hate set up two 13-year-old female accounts, one of which they pushed toward dieting videos. The researchers found TikTok responded by serving up mental health and body image content, “and the research indicated that the more vulnerable accounts—which included the references to body image in the username—were served three times more harmful content and 12 times more self-harm and suicide-related content.” Already prone to anxiety and depression, girls become disoriented. Spiraling perpetuates a cycle of negative thoughts.

Young girls typically have not yet developed defenses against spiraling. Ash Eskridge said that as a 13-year-old, she and her peers were “brainwashed” by the videos they saw: “I notice that the demographic [trans identification] most affects is teen girls around 12 to 14, as they’re the most vulnerable since they aren’t matured yet.” TikTok parasitizes the typical rhythms of girlhood friendship. David C. Geary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, notes that social networking platforms exploit patterns of female friendship such as over-sharing: “The social dynamics of girls’ and women’s friendship groups, including a desire to fit in and avoid conflict, may make them more susceptible to social contagion.” We tend to sync ourselves with others without even realizing it, and this creates bonds of affiliation over time. The TikTok spiral involves addictive sharing, imitating gestures and movements, and lip-syncing lyrics from pop songs.

TikTok’s spiral exacerbates the roller coaster of upswings followed by depressive states. Dr. Julie Albright, an expert on social media and the brain, explains: “In psychological terms [it’s] called random reinforcement…sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s how these platforms are designed…they’re exactly like a slot machine. What that’s doing is rewiring their neuropathways in their brains.” This addictive spiral misdirects stress into an internal loathing that can be seen pretty clearly within the female demographic.

TikTok thus represents a bigger threat than other platforms, because it encourages reposting highly relatable videos and sharing deeply personal information with strangers—even the vocal affirmation within the #LGBTQ milieu does not alleviate the distress. Mental health professionals are increasingly speaking out about such effects. For instance, Yim Register, mental health and social media researcher, points out the particular danger to mental well-being posed by the over-sharing tendency on TikTok. Whereas in clinical settings, personal information and disclosure is safeguarded, “The platform spirit of TikTok seems to be about posting very loudly about very intimate and intense things. And people are encouraged to be vulnerable to fit that spirit.”

In a manner analogous to an anorexic’s self-disgust at seeing her own body in a photograph, a gender-questioning girl can begin to hyper-focus on her female body with intensifying animus. Embodiment itself becomes triggering. One popular sound effect features an older woman’s voice musing, “I miss the girl you were,” before a voice representing the user replies, “I gutted that b**ch from the inside out.” Ironically, many videos featuring this audio clip are are glow ups (videos tracking positive transformations), not limited to but very much including trans-influencer videos showing a transformation from female to “male.”

Even factoring in youth posturing, there is something extremely disturbing about “gutting” the sexed childhood self, and those curious about gender issues (i.e., every kid living) can get channeled into harmful spiraling that includes videos by trans influencers. TikTok’s pop music layering and lip-syncing, tailored to attach the most personal meanings to lyrics, seem designed to produce what one Canadian Millennial calls “trauma dumping.”

The TikTok hashtag “I gutted that b**ch from the inside out” includes 226.3 thousand videos. A casual review of the videos for this hashtag will convince you of the universality of female body image issues, but those created by trans influencers are unforgettable for conveying extreme self-hatred. A small sampling of “gutted” videos is enough to suggest typical female dissatisfaction with body image.

In one notable example, a Scottish trans influencer with a 38.5k-follower account called “psychedelicody” flashes a timeline photo as a young girl while lip-syncing the “gutted” sound effect. Cody’s style is cyber punk, but the mood is particularly dark, with Cody literally “giving the finger” to show absolute contempt of the younger self.

Within this viral TikTok trending video category, trans influencer videos show striking antipathy toward an earlier embodied self.

Trans suffering spirals outward, much like the TikTok tics identified as a new disorder spread by watching Tourette syndrome videos on the app. One person talks about self-disgust and gutting her girl-self, and others sympathize, internalizing the mindset that female embodiment was insufferable. The responses and comments to Cody’s videos readily demonstrate that viewers are perceiving life struggles through the eyes of the content creator. Mimetic engagement on TikTok gets kids to adopt others’ dysfunctions before they have fully learned the skills necessary for self-protective emotional gatekeeping. Lacking the experience and wisdom to foresee and foreclose compelling claims on their attention, kids are vulnerable. TikTok encourages them to take on the thoughts and perceptions of those expressing body hatred.

Concerns about invasion of privacy are at the heart of spiraling. Researchers warn that TikTok‘s new user agreement includes biometric data collection that can be used for active full-time surveillance. This goes beyond capturing audio for captioning and visual data for geolocation.

How might TikTok face data, in particular, be used to induce spiraling? Beyond uploaded videos, the app can utilize video capture, which the user agreement apparently classifies as adware used for “other non-personally-identifying operations.” U.S. Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission Brendan Carr has said: “TikTok collects everything from search and browsing histories to keystroke patterns and biometric identifiers, including faceprints…and voiceprints.” Using TikTok permits access to data including camera and microphone.

Internationally, people are beginning to ask why a Chinese-owned company with no separation from its government might invest the latest technologies in an app that is increasingly recognized as a precision instrument for burrowing into and splitting open the psyches of young users. Well might we wonder—and consider whether this is an influence we want in our homes.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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