The government of India this week banned TikTok and 59 other Chinese applications over data-security concerns amidst the ongoing India-China border conflict. Tiktok is the crown jewel of the ban with nearly 200 million users in India, and lifetime downloads of over 600 million.
With suddenly no access to TikTok and these apps, what will happen to those social media users who rely heavily on them?
“Social media apps like TikTok use the same neural pathways in your brain as alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis,” Vivek Ullati, a Cochin-based psychiatrist told Re:Set. “When you use a drug, your brain gets conditioned to it because pleasure pathways in the brain release dopamine, which is a hormone that makes us feel ‘rewarded’ when it’s released after certain activities. That feeling of ‘reward’ creates what we call a ‘high.’”
According to Ullati, whenever the level of dopamine produced goes down, the user has to consume the drug, or in this case, social media to bring themselves back to the new adjusted levels of pleasure. This then creates a vicious cycle which can be extremely difficult to break.
The ban on TikTok and other social media apps such as LIKEE and VIGO Video has taken away the daily dopamine hit of millions of people, most of whom are under the age of 30. “They will feel like they’re in a withdrawal state until they find alternatives,” Ullati explained.
Impact on the creators
For content creators, the ban is a double whammy. TikTok’s parent company, ‘Bytedance’ is expected to lose over six billion USD from the ban, but it’s going to hit the wallet of the app’s content creators the most, many of whom come from the Indian countryside.
According to Dr. Manoj Kumar Sharma of the National Institute of Mental Health & Neuro Sciences, the withdrawal will create psychological distress. “Social media has become the go to space where people look for affiliations. It fills the gaps created by loneliness and boredom,” he told Re:Set. Sharma specializes in working with young adults suffering from technological addiction.
“When we take that space away, it opens up all that empty space in people’s life and they don’t know what to do with it. Especially when they’re unprepared for it. This is why their anxiety levels rise. They’ll be panicky, irritated, angry and sad, with constant mood swings, which will then affect their personal life,” Sharma said. “In some severe cases, it creates a perception of inability to function without these apps at the cognition level.”
For consumers of this content, the withdrawal is going to be different. Social media addiction is already sweeping rural India, and a recent study by King George’s Medical University (KGMU), Lucknow and Uttar Pradesh Health Strengthening Project (UPHSP), found that one of out of every six social media addicts are likely to develop health problems, including depression, anxiety and antisocial behaviour.
According to Diljith Kannan, who previously worked on behaviour patterns of social media users, at the Institute of Public Health in Karnataka, pulling people suddenly out of the habit of scrolling isn’t an effective means of managing this addiction.
“Apps like TikTok that are primarily targeted towards teenagers are modeled keeping short attention spans in mind and altering behaviour by keeping users hooked inside a loop of content,” he said. “More than the content, the app is focused on creating that habit of endless swiping.”
In his experience, Kannan believes that taking social media away without any notice creates frustration, arising from colloquially what we refer to as FOMO or Fear of Missing Out. The process of quitting has to be a conscious decision on the user’s part, only after understanding that using the app is affecting them adversely.