The Addictive Principles of Drugs and TikTok: A Surprising Connection

Do you remember a decade ago when drugs were a particularly serious problem in our city? Just a short drive to the suburbs, and you’d encounter discarded needles littering the streets. Billboards with messages like “Drugs – don’t even try once” were scattered all over, reminding everyone that you could easily become an addict after just one try.

Nowadays, drugs are no longer the top concern (at least not in our city), perhaps because people are aware of the dangers and high addictiveness, and they steer clear. However, few realize that the apps we use for hours every day, like TikTok and Instagram, employ a similar addictive principle as drugs to keep us hooked, and it’s called the scarcity loop.

So, what defines addiction? You are addicted when you continually repeat a behavior that gradually causes physical and mental harm. Addiction is more common and frequent than we think. On the milder side, it could be having a few cups of coffee every morning or smoking a few cigarettes each day. It gets worse when you stay up all night gaming or spend all your money on gambling and alcohol. And, of course, the most dreaded form of addiction is drug addiction, which can lead to death.

Drug addiction is dangerous because it seems impossible to stop even though you are fully aware of the harm it’s causing. I remember coming home from work, both mentally and physically exhausted, just wanting to get some rest. However, out of habit, as soon as I lay down, I would open TikTok and spend hours scrolling. My eyes would grow tired, my mind exhausted, but my fingers would keep swiping, occasionally tapping that heart button. I wanted to put the phone down and relax, but the enticing content on TikTok kept me hooked.

The Scarcity Loop: The Principle Behind All Addictions Besides using artificial intelligence to suggest videos according to users’ preferences, TikTok has ingeniously and effectively implemented an addictive principle that taps into human nature to keep us from quitting, and that’s the scarcity loop.

Opportunity → Unpredictable Reward → Quick Repeat Ability.

  1. Opportunity: This is the starting point of the scarcity loop. You have an opportunity to attain something valuable to you. For example, if you’re really thirsty and happen to pass by a bubble tea shop, it’s an opportunity to quench your thirst. Or if you’re feeling down about a romantic situation, luckily, you have a few bottles of wine at home, an opportunity to drown your sorrows. What makes opportunities in the scarcity loop irresistible is that they come with risks. Not every time you’ll get what you want, and there’s a chance you might lose something. This is why gambling is so alluring. You win, money comes in; you lose, money goes out, and this constant uncertainty keeps you hooked. TikTok applies this concept brilliantly. You log onto TikTok for entertainment, to find videos that make you laugh, or to check what’s trending on social media today. In less than a second, TikTok collects and processes all your relevant information and suggests videos you’d like to see. But it doesn’t stop there. TikTok occasionally inserts provocative and extreme content, such as celebrity gossip or jealousy-inducing clips, to grab users’ attention and engagement. Now, you’re completely immersed in the captivating content on TikTok, and putting the phone down becomes nearly impossible.
  2. Unpredictable Reward: This is the next part of the scarcity loop, the principle that explains why some behaviors are addictive while others are not. An unpredictable reward, which you cannot predict beforehand, is what makes a behavior addictive, while predictable behaviors often don’t lead to addiction. For example, imagine you have an itch on your foot, you scratch it, and the itch goes away. Scratching this itch is not addictive because you know for sure that scratching will relieve the itch. Predictable actions are rather dull. However, if you pay attention to TikTok, you’ll notice that every swipe is a surprise. You have no idea what the next video will be. It might make you laugh, cry, or get angry, and this unpredictability makes TikTok’s content more enticing and exciting.
  3. Quick Repeat Ability: This is the final component of the scarcity loop, the principle that explains why an action becomes addictive. A behavior that can be quickly and easily repeated becomes more addictive. Imagine being very thirsty but having to walk for two hours to get a bubble tea. You probably won’t be interested in walking for another four hours for a third tea once you’ve had one. However, TikTok’s unique feature is its ability to process and preload thousands of videos in a flash, allowing you to switch to another video with just a gentle swipe. The ease and speed of repeating the behavior make it easy to get lost in endless TikTok content.

Breaking the Addiction Loop Based on the scarcity loop, you can eliminate a bad habit by disrupting one of its three components. For example, if you have a habit of scrolling through TikTok every day when you get home from work, that evening at home is your opportunity to start the loop. Instead of scrolling through TikTok, you can do something else that brings you comfort, joy, and doesn’t lead to addiction.

However, it’s important to note that TikTok and other addictive media like games or gambling are often very appealing and hard to let go of once you’re drawn in. Therefore, the most effective way to quit TikTok is to limit the opportunities you have to open and scroll through it.

P.S.: Despite knowing the addictive principles of TikTok, I still spend a few hours on it every day. The essence of TikTok, or social media in general, is not inherently bad; it allows us to have fun and connect with others. However, the downside is the addiction it can create, making us neglect the present moment. I haven’t quit TikTok completely, but recognizing its addictive nature and gradually adjusting my behavior to use it less is a good start in the “detox” process.