For an insight into the thoughts of teenagers about social-media, TikTok is the place to look. “Anyone else feel like it’s low key kinda cringe to post on Instagram now?” asks one in a clip uploaded to the video-sharing platform in June. It has been liked over 368,000 times. Facebook, which owns Instagram, is under fire after Frances Haugen, a former employee, leaked internal documents suggesting the firm was aware it was causing harm to the mental health of teenage girls in particular. But the internet’s youngest users have been falling out of love with Facebook’s platforms for a while. American children aged between four and 15 spent an average of 17 minutes per day on Facebook in 2020, down from 18 minutes in 2019, according to a report from Qustodio, a security software company. Instagram stayed at 40 minutes, and Snapchat was up from 37 minutes to 47. Screen time on TikTok, meanwhile, surged, from 44 average daily minutes to 87.
These numbers are a consequence of lockdowns, but are also a testament to TikTok’s engrossing “For You” page (fyp), which is powered by an algorithm that serves users an endless stream of videos they might be interested in. Getting featured on it is often an indicator that a clip will go viral (many videos are tagged #fyp to boost their chances), which is part of the app’s thrill. The platform, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, has become synonymous with lip-synching teenagers, dances and challenges. And despite interventions from various governments, including the threat of its removal from app stores by former President Donald Trump, TikTok has continued to soar since its launch in 2016: last month it hit 1bn monthly users.