It’s easy to criticize TikTok as dumb if you don’t use it, and it’s also easy to criticize it as a mind-numbing time-suck if you use it all the time.
But it’s an informed criticism, with an understanding of the value the app provides in return, and that’s the difference. It’s a forum for all of humanity, and it turns out humanity is pretty awesome.
I wouldn’t trade my time watching Andrew Murnane managing to make his view that nothing really matters uplifting or hearing Crypto Weatherman eviscerate the latest mainstream financial take, or being a bit mesmerized at the confidence of Strawberry Milk Mob rocking out while she packs her fun little bikini orders. And they are just the tip of the iceberg of value for me. There have been moments that I’ve been sad, lonely and lost, and a TikTok video has snapped me back to reality. I’ve had life-altering advice stop me in my tracks, and I’ve incorporated it too.
Anyone who uses TikTok knows that these are competing truths, and therein lies the conflict. We love the content; it can of course be terrible, or mediocre, but it’s also pretty reliably what we love. We have basically ordered it on a loop. It’s so us.
I’m thinking about all this as I sit with two dozen Arab journalists gathered at a resort near the hot springs in Ain Al Soukhna, Egypt for the TikTok Digital Wellness Summit, put on by a company everyone is blaming for creating a platform that is harming our mental health.
A platform is nothing if it doesn’t grow, and those of us gathered here are one of the keys to that growth. Users who love TikTok don’t want it to go anywhere, even as we also want it to take up less space.
So: TikTok has to do something, right? Even if it reminds me of an event I was invited to recently, a tobacco and oil and gas company, tackling “harm reduction”, this, I think, is that something.
A company spokesperson acknowledged the conundrum when she spoke to us in Arabic. “It’s weird that we are talking about mental health while we’re a content creation platform. Yes we are an entertainment platform but we also know that social media has an effect on our mental health and thats why we are doing this event.”
And so we had Yasmine Madkour, a somatic therapist and sexologist from Egypt and Ali Taqi, a certified life coach from Bahrain, talking about mental health in general. We had Dubai-based art therapist Victoria Parrucci showing us how to do poured paintings. There was a trust circle to close out the day; I didn’t understand a thing, but it was clear people were getting big stuff off their chest.
At one point in our morning session with Yasmine and Ali, a journalist points out that social media has become our break from work, and I think of all the times I’ve picked up my phone when I bump up against something a bit difficult, and lose time I’ll never get back. Of how I pick up my phone when I’m sad, or a bit lonely, and I don’t do the things I really want to – tackle a problem or a task, walk, read, think – and find myself in battle between parts of my brain that even I, at 52 with 25 years of covering health, mental health, science and wellness, don’t completely understand.
The best way I can describe what happens is there is one powerless part of me pleading ‘stop, just please stop, please put the phone down’ while the part in control coldly says ‘no’ without looking up, like a psychopath.
So how do we know when our phone issues are actually mental health issues? These journalists report feeling things like loss of appetite, not able to sleep, getting irritated and easily triggered. Ali talks about others: a feeling of loneliness, even when surrounded by people. Feeling nervous, anxious, depressed, too. Check, check, check and check.
Yasmin explains: “Our nervous system plays a huge role on the way we are feeling and it’s obviously directly related to the stress we feel. Everyone has a limit to the amount of stress they can handle or take. So, when you exceed the level of stress your body can handle, you will start releasing more hormones that cause a lot of stress and health problems.”
She and Ali talk about how our hormones work, about serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin; about how we can crash when we overload our systems, how we were never designed to stimulate them this much, this often, this regularly.
It strikes me as so simple when Yasmine suggests we use the tools these apps provide to our advantage: “The screen time management really lets you notice how long you’ve been on and whether you are overwhelmed while using the platform… it’s important to have an active lifestyle instead of just being passive and staying online.”
I know about those. We’ve written about them. So why don’t we do it? Why don’t I do it? I pride myself on being better than others. Of leaving my phone in my purse for long swathes of time, in another room when I sleep; of having barely any notifications.
I talk a good game about not looking at it first thing in the morning, or for an hour before bed, but that’s not really the case; not usually, not anymore.
The gravitational pull is so strong, the disconnect with being in myself fully, has become so great that I’m truly honest with myself, it’s what plagues me most these days.
I’ve been a voracious consumer of content for three decades now. But reading several books a week and four newspapers on a Saturday over a solo breakfast in 2002 – a favorite pastime – is no match for being splayed on my sofa, switching between dozens of subjects and people every few seconds with the flick of a finger. I just don’t feel as well now, as I once did, and this device, I’m sure, is one of the reasons.
I’m not imagining things, as Yasmin explains: “If I’m running away from something – our bodies always react differently. Even our digestion works differently, and it’s all related to the amount of pressure we have. There is a tolerance range that your nervous system can handle and once you exceed that range, our body starts to act differently.”
Too rarely do I do what Yasmin says is essential to feel safe, and that’s an inside job. I want to get back to feeling content more often; I need to change. Her advice when it all gets too much? So sound and doable: “Focus your mind on other things like how you are feeling. Focus on your senses. Focus on how you are walking and how the ground feels. Focus on slowing down so your body knows that there is nothing you are running away from.”
As one of the journalists pointed out, all of us use social media for helping with content creation, for learning, for work, and that’s always my argument. To mitigate this, Ali suggests a boundary: “Knowing what you need social media for is important.”
One of the journalists said, heartbreakingly, “we’ve forgotten how to be humans”.
I want to remember. And I want to be fully human again, before it’s too late.
And so I’ll try again; I have to. Otherwise, I think soon the me I used to know could be gone for good.
I implemented those limits TikTok includes in their product that many of the other apps do too.I made a plan for producing content, with limits; and a promise to myself to consume less, of everything. And to give my brain, and my heart, and the blood that runs through my veins, room to just be.
Maybe, if you love and use these apps but also hate your phone as much as I do, you can give it a try too.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.