How AI is getting youths addicted to social media

Superior tech helps TikTok recommend videos better to keep you scrolling

In Summary

• Addiction is problematic as it interferes with your performance at work or in school

A girl browses her phone in bed
A girl browses her phone in bed

Anyone who’s on social media knows using it excessively can interfere with work, studies and personal relationships. TikTok is a relatively new entrant to social media, but there’s something about it that makes it extra addictive.

A growing number of Kenyans, possibly in the millions, are spending a large chunk of their day endlessly scrolling TikTok videos. As humans are mostly visual creatures, we understand the world around us through sight.

TikTok offers an unlimited mix of comedy, memes, inspirational words, relationship advice and religious teachings that are bound to appeal to the human instinct.

The success of TikTok has pushed other social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and YouTube, to display videos in the same endlessly scrolling format as TikTok.

Linda Wanjala, a 33-year-old sales executive, is a typical TikTok user. She can be found scrolling through videos in the app wherever she gets a WiFi connection. “My favourite videos are those of vernacular music, comedy, preaching and religious songs,” Wanjala says. When she’s through with TikTok, she shifts to Facebook and YouTube for more videos, stopping only when she moves away from a WiFi hotspot.

Wanjala sees her time on social media as harmless fun. “I’ve learnt a lot watching those videos, and my eyes don’t hurt at all,” she quips.

The Reuters Institute revealed in June that Kenya has the world’s heaviest users of TikTok. 54 per cent of those surveyed admitted to using the video app for various purposes. Kenya was followed by Thailand, whose TikTok usage was 51 per cent. South Africa came third, where 50 per cent of respondents admitted to using TikTok.

Kenyans are not just using TikTok to share funny videos. According to survey results, 29 per cent of Kenyan respondents got their news exclusively from TikTok. This emerging trend implies that a growing chunk of Kenyans are getting news from unregulated sources, such as celebrities, influencers and social media personalities.

From a mental health perspective, excessive use of social media platforms reduces productivity and success in work, education and other areas of life. Sophia Petrillo of the Brown University School of Public Health says social media addiction has been linked to negative health impacts, particularly among adolescents and youth.

“Two separate studies, one on Scottish adolescents and another on US college students, both indicated a relationship between increased use of social media and heightened levels of anxiety,” Petrillo says.

National and international studies have all found links between social media use, poor sleep and unhealthy eating habits. “Taken together, these findings suggest that the implications of social media addiction can be damaging to both individual and population health,” Petrillo says.


TikTok’s success is largely attributed to artificial intelligence. TikTok makes use of artificial intelligence to detect each user’s tastes. The kind of content you watch, like, share and post tells AI what to show you each time you open TikTok. Think of TikTok as a restaurant.

Imagine if each time you got into a restaurant, the waiter led you directly to your favourite table, where you find your preferred food already laid out. Most people would be happy with such a restaurant and will return to enjoy the personalised experience.

Next, imagine being in the restaurant and meeting people who share your taste in food, politics, comedy, music, fashion and any other topic. You start to feel part of a social club and you will want to hang out with these people as often as possible.

The influence of AI on social media platforms is confirmed in a 2022 research paper published in the Frontiers of Psychology journal. Researchers found that TikTok’s systems played a bigger role in attracting young people to the platform than the quality of content. There is a “closed-loop relationship” between TikTok addiction and its artificial intelligence algorithm. Users seem to be caught in an entertainment spiral.

The paper states that TikTok’s systems are “equipped with more advanced algorithm technology, more intelligent than previous media platforms”. This gives TikTok the ability to recommend content in a more accurate and personalised way.

What are the signs of addiction to social media videos? The first sign is the reaction of people close to you. If your family, friends and workmates complain that you are spending too much time on your smartphone, you should take them seriously. Social media addiction will distract you from interacting with people close to you. It will definitely interfere with your performance at work or in school.

Do you get into bed but keep scrolling through videos till the wee hours of the night? Do you feel sad when not on social media, or feel that you are "missing out" on what's going on there? If so, you may be turning to social media to escape the real problems you are facing.

How do you reclaim your life from social media addiction?

1. Time limits: The first step is to place limits on how much time you spend online. Digital Responsibility, an advocacy group that is creating awareness on the consequences of technology, advises allocating specific times for social media. You may, for example, decide to visit social media strictly in the afternoon. You may decide to stop checking social media after 8pm so as not to be distracted from sleeping. The times you choose will be determined by your lifestyle and habits.

2. Get a hobby: Make dates to physically meet with friends. Take an online class that uses up time and gives you real benefits. During the brief periods you will have allocated for online videos, find meaningful content. Unfollow content creators who do not provide real value to your life. If possible, says the Digital Responsibility advocacy group, start a new hobby that has nothing to do with the Internet at all.

3. Turn off notifications: Sounds made by notifications from social media apps can be very distracting. By default, every app is designed to sound a notification unless you disable that feature. Unless you are running a business on social media, it is not necessary to pick up your phone each time there's a notification. Leave notifications only for important messages, such as work emails.

In summary, social media is not an evil that must be avoided. You can sustain connections with the people who matter to you while spending less time on social media.

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