Minh Duc used to spend at least five hours a day scrolling through TikTok. The 21-year-old Hanoian often received lots of short, funny videos from his friends.
Whenever he didn’t plug into TikTok, he would suffer FOMO (fear of missing out) because his demographic peers would know what was trending and he wouldn’t. “I once thought I would be left behind had it not been for TikTok,” Duc shared.
At first, Minh Duc thought of the platform as something “useful and entertaining.” He even recommended the app to his younger sister, his parents, and a lot of his friends.
His TikTok usage “peaked” when he found himself spending around two hours during the day and three hours at night scrolling through his TikTok feed.
“I would scroll until I became so exhausted that I fell asleep, normally at around 1-2a.m.,” he confessed.
Minh Duc, 21 years old, scrolls through his TikTok feed while having a coffee in April 2023. Photo courtesy of Duc
However, as time went by, Duc realized how many toxic videos he was becoming exposed to on TikTok.
Duc voiced his opinions in the comments sections a couple of times, but the more he expressed his points of view, the more frequently TikTok’s addiction algorithm (which is designed to keep people addicted to the app at any cost) force-fed him similar videos.
At the beginning of February, when Duc came across a video about “top useless university majors,” he felt like an alarm bell started ringing in his head. In these videos, undergraduate majors including Business Administration, Marketing, Real Estate Studies, and English Language Studies were often listed as “useless,” “non prominent,” “graduates likely to be unemployed,” “graduates likely to have low income,” or “too broad.”
“As I was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English Language Studies, I was upset with this information,” said the University of Languages and International Studies graduate. “I worried that many high school students could be exposed to this toxic and incorrect career-oriented information.”
As Minh Duc started compensating by limiting his time spent on the app, he noticed that many more users were being lured into adopting toxic trends like “drop out of school to open a start-up business instead,” or “making money is not difficult.” Others were being convinced to buy low quality products.
A recent survey by VnExpress showed that among around 6,000 TikTok users questioned, over 81% reportedly often came across toxic content.
Bad actors and ‘brainwashing’
Thanh Vy, 27, a Ho Chi Minh City resident, only stopped using TikTok in mid-2022, after being hospitalized because of her following a “self-proclaimed professional” she came across on the platform.
Scrolling through videos on the platform gradually turned into an unbreakable habit. She started using the app at all times of day or night, slowly beginning to ignore her studies, friends and family in favor of the less important things in life. “Every time I unlocked my phone screen, my thumb would unconsciously touch TikTok’s icon,” she said.
After being exposed to something for long enough, our brains start to adopt it. With Vy, she gained interest in simple ways to lose weight without having to exercise.
She began spending hours every day on TikTok.
Vy limits her TikTok usage to protect her own health, March 2023. Photo courtesy of Vy
Vy applied what she learned from the short video clips to her daily lifestyle. She started to replace her water intake with black coffee and green tea, cut carbohydrates from her diet, and took supplements endorsed by TikTokers. The videos she watched claimed to help people lose between five and seven kilograms of weight after one month only.
She soon experienced symptoms such as migraine headaches, dizziness, tiredness, black spots on her skin, and hair loss. One day, she collapsed. When her parents took her to the hospital, she was diagnosed with a serious nutritional deficiency.
“Only then did I finally realize that all the advice about weight loss on TikTok were scams aiming to sell products,” she said. “I had been brainwashed.”
Vietnamese authorities are planning a major inspection of TikTok next month as a result of its undeniable role in spreading toxic information that has led to negative economic and social consequences.
As of February 2023, Vietnam had more TikTok users than any other Southeast Asian nation. Even though the platform only just reached Vietnam in April 2019, it gained a lot of momentum here during the pandemic and the number of TikTok users in Vietnam is now ranked the 6th globally.”The TikTok algorithm enables toxic information to spread and affect adolescents more easily,” said an official from the Ministry of Information and Communications during a meeting last week.
Dr. Tran Thanh Nam, a professor at Hanoi National University, attributed people’s addiction to TikTok to the feelings of excitement and curiosity elicited by the content, as well as the relaxed feeling of easily scrolling through entertaining content that takes their mind off the other stresses of life. But Dr. Nam also said these are the same qualities that make users “addicted.”
Many TikTok addicts have reported that using trends they’ve discovered on TikTok changed their lives. Popular and particularly dangerous trends on TikTok include “the blackout challenge” (which encourages viewers to hold their breath until they pass out) and the “crossing-roads-while-cars-are-passing-by challenge.” These trends are especially harmful for children who are easily gullible.
In the short term, these videos entertain people. But in the long term, being “addicted to TikTok” could lead to many physical and mental consequences, including myopia, obesity, sleep disorders, and short attention spans.
More dangerously, exposure to toxic content for a long time could pose a threat to one’s viewpoint. There have been many adolescents who now regard the outside world as dangerous, filthy, and twisted after watching videos on TikTok.
“If there is nothing done, our adolescents could easily become a generation of those who enjoy lying down and scrolling through social media [instead of real life]. They will feel confident commenting online, but in real life they’ll have nothing to say or contribute,” Nam claimed.
A week after being discharged from the hospital, Vy tried other hobbies like reading and listening to music. Every night, before going to bed, she puts her mobile phone in a drawer, hopefully to avoid coming back to TikTok.
Minh Duc chose a bit different approach. After his two negative encounters, he has been limiting his TikTok usage to only 30 minutes a day. He also shifted his focus to watching educational videos about skills he wants to acquire. At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to hit the “not interested” button every time he comes across toxic and harmful content.
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