At the beginning of the pandemic, like many other optimists, I dreamed up a totally unrealistic list of tasks I would accomplish with my newfound free time. Recalling this list now gives me a sensation similar to what I feel when I read my childhood diaries: Who is this stranger? What were her motivations? I’m not sure why I thought I would suddenly become the kind of person who does the NYTimes crossword puzzle, microneedles regularly, and bakes for fun, but this was March, and we were all adjusting to the novelty of being home. Zoom happy hours were still considered enjoyable.
Despite the fact that I’ve accomplished none of these items, I can’t say I’m sorry I let down the slightly delusional version of myself that I was in March. Because instead of doing crosswords and rolling tiny needles across my face, I spent my free hours doing something that I think was way more beneficial for my mind and wellbeing: scrolling on TikTok.
I had considered downloading TikTok earlier in the year out of curiosity, but had never gotten around to it—partially because I was lazy and partially because I was a year and a half into a social media hiatus that I had no intentions of breaking. I had deactivated my Instagram in November 2018 for what was supposed to be a 30-day digital detox, but a year and a half later, I still hadn’t logged back into the app. I loved that I could stay home on a Friday night and not be filled with FOMO after seeing my friend’s stories. I had no idea what anyone was up to, and honestly, I’d gotten a little smug about it. “I don’t need this illusion to be happy,” I thought, like I was back in the fourth grade stuffing my American Girl Dolls into a box after discovering they’re not, in fact, based on real historical characters.
But, as I first learned when my mom made plans to take my little sister to the American Girl Doll Store, it doesn’t take much to topple my inflated ideals. And this time, it didn’t even take a trip to an overpriced mecca of tiny doll clothes for me to abandon my moral high ground. It only took a global pandemic and about 36 hours in my house, and before I knew it I was logging into Instagram and downloading TikTok.
Now, eight months later, my Screen Time report tells a very different story than what I would have predicted back in March. I had expected to get immediately sucked back into my Instagram addiction, but I’ve barely been logging an hour each week on the app. Instead, I’ve been spending hundreds of hours scrolling through the endless content on TikTok’s “For You” page. It’s become my primary form of escapism during a time when so many activities I used to consider mindless—perusing grocery store aisles, waiting in line for coffee, walking outside—require a new level of caution and care.
It’s hard to even sum up what about the content is so appealing, since it’s really so varied. Sometimes my For You page is filled with makeup tutorials and videos of people reviewing their most recent Zara hauls, and sometimes it’s filled with clips of a man longboarding to Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams” while sipping cranberry juice. You would think this juxtaposition couldn’t possibly be soothing, but it quiets my brain in a way that little else can this year. No other leisure activity I’ve tried recently offers me the same level of distraction. You can’t even see the time at the top of your phone when you have the TikTok app open, a feature I especially appreciate in 2020 while I continue to pretend time isn’t real.
I can spend hours scrolling through TikTok and not feel an ounce of the sadness or insecurity I sometimes grapple with after going down an Instagram rabbit hole. Browsing on Instagram can feel like navigating an emotional minefield—you can wade through the harmless birthday posts and apple orchard photos, but tap once more to the right and you’ll end up with a front row seat to your ex’s trip to Tulum. Even if you become well acquainted with the mute button, at its core, Instagram is still a conglomeration of other people’s happy moments, which can be both uplifting and exhausting to witness.
Instagram is a conglomeration of other people’s happy moments, which can be both uplifting and exhausting to witness.
There are no exes on TikTok, metaphorically speaking, because the algorithm expertly fills your feed with a seemingly random stream of strangers. I’ve yet to see a single thing on TikTok that’s hurt my feelings, or even really bummed me out. Seeing people on Instagram celebrate milestones gives me that gnawing feeling that I should be doing more to achieve my goals. Seeing people on TikTok make cool tie-dye shirts just makes me feel like I might want to make a cool tie-dye shirt. And yes, the former might be a more productive form of motivation, but we’re in a pandemic, and an election year. Vaguely committing to tie-dye is about all I’ve got left in me right now.
If Instagram is where we show off the most attractive versions of ourselves, and Twitter is where we display the smartest, wittiest versions, then I think TikTok is the place where people are beginning to display their realest forms. You get to see the works in progress on TikTok, while people reserve other platforms for the finished product. And somehow, watching strangers be this open is having a much more positive impact on my emotions than seeing the glittery versions of people I actually know.
If you’ve been holding out on TikTok because you still view it as the Gen-Z dancing app, let me warn you: there is a fair amount of dancing. But I promise, it either becomes endearing or you scroll past it enough that the algorithm learns to keep it away. Here are a few TikToks that have boosted my serotonin levels recently to get you started:
- @jeme.rod’s perfect depiction of what it’s like to be a millennial working from home.
- @greyandmama’s videos of the most polite toddler you’ll ever come across.
- @wisdm8’s unbelievably creative emoji-inspired outfits.
- @miriam.gin1’s aesthetically-pleasing reviews of Amazon products.
- @meg.nickerson’s simple and soothing makeup tutorials.
- @ladyyasmina1’s humbling reminder that everyone thinks they're the main character in their hometown.
- @arijelkin’s vibe-perfecting playlist recommendations.
- Pretty much every video from #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt.