Emer McLysaght: TikTok is good for me. I’ve stopped giving myself a hard time about it

The app is bringing me hope and joy at a time when it’s really thin on the ground

Maia Knight with twins Scout and Violet: The twins’ little red cheeks and matching snowsuits are what is bringing me joy at a time when joy feels as scarce as hope 

Maia Knight with twins Scout and Violet: The twins’ little red cheeks and matching snowsuits are what is bringing me joy at a time when joy feels as scarce as hope 

 

I haven’t read a book in months. As a writer, that feels like a shameful and neglectful thing to admit but the pile by my bed remains untouched and I can’t remember the last time I charged my Kindle. Usually, reading is good for me. Leaving my phone outside the bedroom and ending the day with a book is part of good “sleep hygiene” and on the eve of our third year of pandemic we’re all trying to sleep as much as possible because we are exhausted. 

Pandemic or not, I’m depressed. Very much so. Things like showers and walking dates are currently the only glimmers of that which is so difficult to muster: hope. Up until recently I had been giving myself a hard time about how much time I was spending on my phone, until I realised that it was time on my phone that was keeping me going. 

I downloaded TikTok 1½ years ago. Tadpole Girl was trending massively on the social media app, and I needed to see this Derry teenager raising frogs in a paddling pool for myself. I never planned on exploring the app any further. I assumed I was too old for it, its viral dances, make-up trends and self-made celebrities. Besides, didn’t I have enough doom to be getting on with by scrolling on Twitter and the increasingly deranged Instagram (deranged because it’s trying so, so hard to keep up with TikTok, and failing)?

The algorithm figured I had a lot of interest in mental health and was pretty nosey about medical stuff in general, so I watched video after video about ADHD symptoms, coping mechanisms and hacks

I think I left TikTok lying largely dormant on my phone for another year or so, until the Tokyo Olympics of summer 2021 and the addictive stream of content coming from the athletes inside the Olympic Village. They were so healthy and fun and constantly hinting at who was riding who in their 15-second or one-minute videos. I was hooked. The more TikTok I consumed, the more my main feed – or the “For You Page” – distilled down what it assumed I wanted to see or what it thought might interest me.

For a while I was part of the phenomenon of TikTok users who were convinced they had ADHD, because as a relatively new user and a woman I was being served a tonne of content about the condition whose sufferers found space on social media during the pandemic. The algorithm figured I had a lot of interest in mental health and was pretty nosey about medical stuff in general, so I watched video after video about ADHD symptoms, coping mechanisms and hacks. 

Before long though my For You Page became more specific as I “liked” and spent more time on videos that interested me. Cats being hilarious and getting big frights, people living by their wits in the woods, babies being hilarious and getting big frights, inspirational women in outfits I love, funny men doing awkward dances, beautiful men doing accomplished dances, people renovating houses, an Irish farm girl chatting with her cows before moving to London to pursue her acting dreams (@fionabergin), a schizophrenic who animates his delusions (@xoradmagical), a woman who lives at the North Pole and shows how many layers she needs to walk her dog (@sejsejlija).

In between all the stuff TikTok thought I’d like, it shoved videos I might not. Articles about TikTok addiction will tell you this strategy is built into the app and is why it keeps people coming back again and again. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the prospect of a win is too delicious to stop scrolling. That’s how I found Maia.

Maia is a young mother from somewhere in the northeastern United States who had twin girls last year following an unplanned pregnancy. She went hugely viral on TikTok after routinely filming herself holding both babies in one arm and making their bottles with the other. She was shoved onto my For You Page many months ago and now I check on her and the girls – Violet and Scout, although me and Maia’s 6.5 million other followers call them Vodka and Scotch. It’s kind of an in-joke between us – daily. Their little red cheeks and matching snowsuits are what is bringing me joy at a time when joy feels as scarce as hope. 

I’ve accepted that, for the moment anyway, TikTok is good for me and stopped giving myself a hard time about it. I look forward to my interludes with my phone. I check in on Vodka and Scotch and the cats and the North Pole and enjoy it so, so much.

I find myself justifying it to friends who still think it’s just teenagers dancing but mostly enjoy informing them that the funny video they just sent me on Instagram was trending on TikTok two weeks ago. The reason they’re hearing that old song they love everywhere? It’s big on TikTok right now. Why is my fridge so well organised? Well, I may not have ADHD, but the household hacks have been fierce helpful. 

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