Since 2018, TikTok has been the most downloaded app in the world, even though the app was only released in 2017, according to CNET. Since the release of the app, people of all ages have reported feeling addicted to it — Forbes even referred to TikTok as “digital crack cocaine.”

Is a TikTok addiction possible? Due to the novelty of the app, there aren’t any long-term studies that give a definite answer, but scientists are working to understand the allure of this viral app.

What happens in your brain while scrolling through TikTok?

A report by The Wall Street Journal likens TikTok to an “infinite candy store” for the brain and a “dopamine machine” that provides a flood of dopamine with every new video.

Sometimes the TikTok algorithm shows us things we like, sometimes it doesn’t. Every time we see something we like, our brain produces a little hit of dopamine. This makes it easier to fall into a loop of endless scrolling, searching for the next little dopamine hit.

Dr. Julie Albright, a professor at the University of South Carolina, told Forbes that this is a psychological term called “random reinforcement.” Many social media platforms use a similar formula to keep users engaged.

Investigation: Does TikTok have a bad effect on kids’ mental health?
Is social media as bad for teens as we thought it was?

The TikTok algorithm is set up to track viewing habits, and to show you personalized videos that are specifically tailored to your unique interests, as previously reported by the Deseret News. A combined study done by two different Chinese universities found that highly personalized video feeds cause users to be become more attached to the app.

Brain scans done on a group of college students “showed that areas involved in addiction were highly activated in those who watched personalized videos. It also found that some people have trouble controlling when to stop watching,” reported The Wall Street Journal.

What are the signs of addiction to TikTok?

A study cited by PsyPost, originally published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, states that while the app is easy to get sucked into, most people wouldn’t be considered addicted.

However, the study claims that problematic TikTok use does exist, and overusing the app “is associated with addiction-like behaviors that can potentially negatively impact the daily lives of sufferers.”

Troy Smith, author of the study, classified some signs of an addiction to the social media platform. Definite signs of a TikTok addiction are when the user becomes “nervous, irritable, anxious or exhibits strong feelings of sadness when deprived of access to the social networking site (withdrawal) and the user’s attempts to control participation in [social networking sites] are unsuccessful (relapse),” Smith said, according to PsyPost.

Who is more susceptible to a TikTok addiction?

People who report high levels of anxiety and low levels of social interaction are more likely to to turn to video sharing apps, like TikTok, to compensate for their lack of social interaction. In turn, this strengthens their addiction to the app, according to a study published in Telematics and Informatics.

Researchers at Zhejiang University published a study linking anxiety and low self-control with increased social media use. “We speculate that individuals with lower self-control ability have more difficulty shifting attention away from favorite video stimulation,” said the authors of the study.

The study also stated that people with low self-control are more susceptible to anxiety and unpleasant thoughts, which drives them to seek external stimuli from an app like TikTok in an attempt to find some relief from these feelings.

Loneliness has also been linked to excessive use of TikTok, stated a study done by the University of Trinidad and Tobago. This research showed that people who score higher on measures of loneliness and social anxiety also score higher on a TikTok addiction scale.

Children are also more susceptible to excessive social media use than adults are, The Wall Street Journal reported. Due to their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain associated with impulse and attention span — children and teens have a harder time putting down the phone, or whatever device that provides them with positive mental stimulation.

What are the dangers of excessive TikTok use?

While social media sites, such as TikTok, can provide connectivity, entertainment and be a medium for artistic expression, overuse of these apps could potentially affect you in your daily life.

TikTok is a platform that constantly offers new things for the brain to focus on. When spending long amounts of time on TikTok, the brain becomes accustomed to the constant changes of the app, causing the brain to “find it difficult to adapt to a nondigital activity where things don’t move quite as fast,” said Dr. Michael Manos, the clinical director of the Center for Attention and Learning at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Troy Smith — the author of a previously mentioned study — also told PsyPost that use of social media “as a mechanism to escapism can be harmful as it does not solve the possible underlying psychological issues such as loneliness and self-esteem.” Smith added that intensive use of social media, especially in adolescents, could be a sign of a deeper psychological issue that may possibly require intervention.