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An In-Depth Look From Axis Ministries

In 1968, Andy Warhol famously predicted a future where everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. What he couldn’t have predicted was that that fame would be decided by an algorithm-governed feed. Enter TikTok.

Typically, the primary purpose of social media has been connecting with people we deliberately follow. But on TikTok, many users spend a majority of time watching and scrolling through algorithm-selected short-form videos on what TikTokers often call the FYP (For You Page). Exactly how this algorithm chooses videos to recommend is unclear. But the FYP is a major part of why TikTok consistently ranks highly in the App Store’s Entertainment category, as opposed to its Social Networking category; often TikTok is more like a TV that tries to read your mind than a way to simply connect with friends.

"Gen Z rated TikTok as the ‘most addictive’ social media app."

As you’ve probably heard, some in the U.S. regard TikTok and its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, as a potential political threat. Some have wondered whether China might purposefully bias the algorithm to insert videos with a pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) slant, or remove videos critical of the CCP, with a long-term goal of influencing our own nation’s political trajectory.

A more common concern, though, has to do with what might happen if the CCP ever ordered ByteDance to share everything TikTok’s algorithm knew about a particular U.S. citizen. Many believe the personality profile of unsuspecting Americans would be up for dissection by an authoritarian government with possibly malicious intent.

Not everyone is convinced that these are legitimate issues, though, particularly Gen Zers. In an interview with the New York Times, 20-year-old TikTok user John Keon pointed out that, “American companies, specifically Apple and Google, are notorious for collecting massive amounts of data. So, if people are uncomfortable with that, they already have been comfortable with that without knowing. Privacy is really a thing of the past.” Another Gen Zer named Andrew Roth said, “[The proposed TikTok ban is] a bunch of really old people trying to distract the country from real dangers. We’re talking about banning TikTok when there’s kids getting gunned down in classrooms. That’s what matters.”1


Whether you agree or disagree with these critiques, there’s no denying that a TikTok ban would leave a massive hole in many Gen Zer’s daily routines. A study has found that Gen Z rated TikTok as the “most addictive” social media app.2 The data bears this out: ByteDance now has over 1.05 billion monthly active users across 154 countries.3 TikTok users worldwide spend an average of 95 minutes a day on the app.4 Not surprisingly, the largest proportion (25%) of U.S. TikTok users are between 10 to 19 years of age.5

So, what are these 10- to 19-year-olds doing on TikTok? Well, as we said at the beginning, some are trying to game the algorithm and get famous, with some influencers reportedly earning upwards of $80,000 through brand partnerships and gifts. Others actually use TikTok to search for things like recipe recommendations, or how to do things like create a résumé. Many others simply hope to entertain themselves and keep up with what their friends care about.

TikTok is full of people being creative and funny, with memes, trends, skits, DIY videos, catchy music, new dances, beautiful people, makeup tutorials and new TikTok “challenges” all the time.

Unfortunately, the app isn’t all positivity. Many mental health experts have become concerned that the real TikTok threat is not China’s data collection, but the harm it’s doing to teens’ emotional development.

It’s easy to run across mature and explicit content on TikTok, which can normalize lust and body-image issues. It’s also par for the course for users to encounter videos that promote or normalize self-harm.

Powerful video filters like “Bold Glamour” use artificial intelligence to remold users’ faces into something more aesthetically pleasing — and this kind of technology can have real mental health effects. As Renee Engeln, director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, put it in an interview with CNN, “Your own face that you see in the mirror suddenly looks ugly to you. It doesn’t look good enough. It looks like something you need to change. It makes you more interested in plastic surgery.”6


Thankfully, there are steps parents and other caring adults can take to mitigate some of these harmful effects:

  1. Because the For You Page recommends content similar to what users have already engaged with, asking teens if you can watch their For You Page with them can be a great way to get a feel for the kinds of content they’re engaging with.
  2. In March of 2023, TikTok also gave users the ability to “refresh” their For You feeds, effectively starting the algorithm over. Teens might use this function for a variety of reasons, but it could be a helpful tool if someone’s For You Page began consistently recommending harmful content. Users can also block videos with certain hashtags from appearing in their feeds.
  3. TikTok has a feature called Family Pairing, which allows parents to remotely disable direct messaging, set screen time limits, enable content restrictions and mute TikTok notifications from their own TikTok account.

All these steps can make a positive difference, but the biggest differences are often made in conversation. As author David Augsburger has said, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

Toward that end, here are some conversation starters we hope can facilitate some great connection with the teens in your world about this addictive, and controversial, app:

  • What do you think about the idea of a TikTok ban?
  • What’s your favorite thing about TikTok? What’s your least favorite thing?
  • Why do you think the For You Page is so addictive?
  • Do you know anyone who’s been negatively affected because of TikTok? What happened?
  • Would you say TikTok has affected your mental health?
  • What’s one recommendation you’d give to others about how to have a healthier, more positive experience on TikTok?

At Axis, we translate pop culture to help parents and caring adults understand and disciple their teenagers. For more help understanding your teens’ world, go to​ and sign up for our Culture Translator newsletter.

For more resources like this, sign up for In the Know, Young Life’s monthly newsletter from Alumni & Friends.

Your support would help us continue creating a positive influence and fostering meaningful connections among young people. Will you consider making a gift to Young Life today?


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