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Conversations with Meredith David: How TikTok and Instagram are designed to tie your brain in knots.

Social media can be the bane of users’ experience. No secret there.

A recent study by Baylor University researchers investigated the relationship between the use of Instagram and TikTok and psychological well-being. The study, involving 420 U.S. adults, focused on five dimensions of “flow states” when using these platforms: Focused Attention, Enjoyment, Curiosity, Telepresence, and Time Distortion. The study found telepresence to be the key flow state driving problematic social media behavior, with high telepresence associated with increased addiction, anxiety, and depression. It suggested that 28% of Instagram users and 24% of TikTok users qualified as addicted. Interestingly, TikTok users reported higher levels of flow, enjoyment, and time distortion than Instagram users. Overcoming negative impacts could be achieved through time management on apps and mindful use, considering social media’s potential both for harm and benefit.

Meredith E. David, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Marketing in the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University, one of the researchers involved in the study set aside time to discuss their findings.

What made you sort of undertake this study? 

This particular author and I, both for a while now we’ve been interested in the impact of social media usage on our well being. There, studies out there that have focused on the Facebook platform specifically, but very little research today. In fact, our research is some of the only research that has looked at forms aside from Facebook. And so, in this particular paper, we were looking at the impact is Tik Tok, and Instagram usage of these two platforms. And it was interesting for us to focus on these two platforms, because they’re highly addictive platforms. They’re used by millions of users and there’s no research out there that’s focused on a specific platform so we can use it.

So, are you investigating and highlighting the differential impact of both platforms on personal and psychological well-being? Could you provide more information on the factors that might contribute to the differences between TikTok and Instagram users?

Certainly! Instagram tends to be more personal in nature, with users primarily sharing photos and engaging in comments. These posts are usually confined to a closer circle of friends. On the other hand, TikTok videos are typically shared with a larger network of friends, followers, and even strangers. The primary goal of TikTok videos is often entertainment, seeking likes, comments, and shares. The desire to escape is a significant driving force behind TikTok usage. When individuals decide which platform to use, if their desire to escape is of great importance to them, they are likely to be drawn towards the immersive world of TikTok.

However, spending more time on social media, including TikTok, has been associated with negative psychological outcomes. Despite users’ belief that escaping into the TikTok world will make them feel better, it actually seems to be an ineffective strategy.

I had a thought that came to mind while you were discussing TikTok. If a person’s goal is to escape, they often lean towards TikTok, right? According to your paper, losing track of time is one of the effects observed. Is there a similar dynamic between television and watching TikTok compared to Instagram and television? Are there more similarities?

Television is different because it doesn’t involve direct communication or the pursuit of attention, likes, and comments like social media platforms. When watching television, you simply observe what is already there. Social media platforms, on the other hand, allow for much more engagement, which contributes to the sense of losing track of time. However, this phenomenon is less apparent on Instagram, where the focus is primarily on sharing and viewing content.

Regarding telepresence as a key factor driving problematic social media usage, I had actually made a note about Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram attempting to compete with TikTok through their “stories” feature, similar to Instagram. Have you noticed any similar patterns with stories, or are the platforms and algorithms inherently different, making the comparison invalid? TikTok’s algorithm, specifically, is designed to provide constant reinforcement, leveraging the visual nature and user feedback.

To answer your question, yes, the algorithm for TikTok is intended to generate a desire for continuous reinforcement, particularly due to the visual nature of the short videos. In contrast, algorithms for some other platforms, like Facebook, have not been updated to cater to users’ specific needs.

Returning to the question of telepresence, you discovered that telepresence is a significant factor driving problematic social media behaviors. Could you please explain the concept of telepresence and its interaction with other dimensions of flow?

Certainly! Flow, in the context of social media, refers to the way we experience a platform. It encompasses various dimensions that shape our experience. Telepresence is one of these dimensions, which we identified as a crucial aspect. Telepresence involves immersing oneself in the virtual world created by the social media experience.

When experiencing telepresence, users become so engrossed that they may forget to monitor the time spent on the platform and lose track of other responsibilities. Other dimensions of flow include enjoyment, curiosity, and other aspects that contribute to the overall experience.

However, in our research, telepresence emerged as a key dimension associated with negative effects on psychological well-being. By being deeply immersed in the virtual world of these platforms, users may disconnect from reality and neglect important aspects of their lives.

While your research suggests that excessive social media use can have negative psychological effects, you also mentioned that intentional use can lead to benefits. How would you recommend users balance their usage to enjoy their time without compromising their well-being?

To use social media in a healthy manner, it’s essential for users to be mindful of the time they spend on these platforms. Utilizing the screen time management settings available on many social media apps can be helpful.

On a personal level, individuals may consider setting time limits for themselves, such as deciding to stop using certain apps after a predetermined amount of time. It’s crucial to be conscious of the amount of time spent, as excessive usage often leads to negative outcomes. In some cases, it may even be beneficial to involve a parental figure, spouse, or accountability partner who can help monitor and limit social media time.

These platforms are intentionally designed to be addictive, making it challenging for us to regulate our usage independently. Setting timers or seeking the support of an accountability partner can assist us in being more aware of our time spent on social media and avoiding excessive usage.

You mentioned that there are four different types of users on both Instagram and Twitter. Could you provide more information about each type and explain how you determined which category each user falls into?

While we didn’t specifically categorize users based on multiple applications or conduct extensive research in that area, we did examine how users utilize Instagram. In our sample, we found that 24% of TikTok users could be classified as addicted, while 20% of Instagram users fell into the addicted category. This indicates that nearly a quarter of users exhibit addictive behaviors towards these platforms.

To further investigate, we correlated heavy usage among participants with those who use the platforms less frequently and examined its impact on well-being. The results consistently showed that users who spent excessive time on these platforms and experienced a high level of telepresence had a stronger negative correlation with their well-being. This underscores the importance of being aware and mindful of our social media usage.

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You discovered that TikTok users derive enjoyment from the platform and often lose track of time. We’ve mentioned that the addictive algorithms and users’ desire for escapism contribute to this phenomenon. Could you please provide further insights into what specifically about TikTok causes people to become deeply absorbed and lose themselves in it?

Users find pleasure in watching the numerous short videos available on TikTok. The enjoyment they experience while viewing these videos acts as constant reinforcement, compelling them to keep watching and seeking more enjoyment. This behavior leads to a distortion of the sense of time. TikTok users are prone to losing track of time and spending more time on the platform than they initially intended. It’s as if they become completely engrossed in scrolling through these videos, finding pleasure in the process and disregarding any negative consequences.

That’s an interesting observation, and it’s indeed a crucial point to consider. There is a certain cruelty inherent in these platforms, as users can easily get caught up in endless scrolling, whether they are actively engaged or not. Interestingly, while users may have fun and enjoy the experience, they may also start to feel increasingly anxious and depressed. Can you elaborate on how this happens?

As users continuously scroll and consume videos, they encounter situations and activities that they might perceive themselves as missing out on. The act of scrolling and immersing themselves in these videos can trigger a sense of mind wandering and intensify the fear of missing out (FOMO). They witness others engaging in exciting and enjoyable activities, which can evoke a feeling of being left out or not having as much fun as they see in the videos. The repetitive nature of watching these short videos, combined with the tendency to compare ourselves to others, can contribute to heightened levels of anxiety and depression. It’s a result of our natural inclination to assess ourselves based on the experiences and achievements of others, which can foster a sense of missing out or not measuring up.

I have one more question that relates to the concept of FOMO. I recall a time when Facebook was still considered decent, and they asked what it was like. Facebook shows people how things are, but shouldn’t individuals be aware of what they are getting into when they join a platform? For example, if I join Twitter, I know it can be a cesspool, and if I join Instagram, I understand that people often present an edited version of their lives. So, does this awareness ever come into play? Can people consciously apply the brakes by being cognizant of the platform they are using?

Considering that people are aware that others are posting idealistic photos and videos of themselves, our research hasn’t indicated any clear indicators that users are conscious of this as they scroll through their news feeds. Instead, as we scroll and view these videos, we tend to perceive them as a representation of reality. To gain more insights, it would be beneficial to conduct future research to understand if users can indeed be more cognizant and acknowledge that much of the content they encounter is carefully curated. From existing studies, there is no indication that people are genuinely conscious of this aspect when posting or consuming content.

I find that incredibly fascinating and intriguing.

It speaks to how deeply ingrained the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) can be for individuals, to the point where they may not even consider that others’ Instagram feeds are carefully curated. It’s no secret that individuals take multiple photos and go through a selection process before posting, yet the power of FOMO remains strong, sometimes without registering in our minds.

It’s truly astonishing. Another related aspect is the manner in which we use these platforms, which my co-author, Dr. Roberts, has studied. Active usage refers to actively engaging by posting, commenting, and liking, while passive usage involves merely scrolling and observing. Our research consistently shows that passive usage of social media platforms is more likely to have negative implications for our well-being compared to active usage.

A general implication for overall well-being would be to use social media platforms as a means to genuinely engage and connect with others, rather than using them passively, which tends to be the predominant form of usage. When we passively scroll without actively interacting, it can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression.


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