ARKANSAS, USA — Every day, a billion users spend millions of hours— all on the popular social media app TikTok.
The social media app can jumpstart careers, educate, and connect people across the globe— but it's growing faster than officials can regulate it.
Now, some officials have voiced concerns about its ownership by a Chinese parent company.
The world has seen the rush to sites like Instagram and Facebook continue over the last few years, but what we’re seeing on TikTok has become unprecedented.
It's a format that experts claim could impact a generation on everything from mental health to national security.
TikTok is growing like never seen before in an app and is used by a billion people every month. The platform gives users an endless scroll of entertainment, education, news, and a place to create their own videos.
Some students at Mills High School in Little Rock spend their time scrolling, and according to Pew Research, two-thirds of all teens are using it as a way to find and get information.
According to Cloudfare, a site that tracks internet traffic, people are using TikTok over more traditional search engines like Google.
"That's my way of expressing myself is to like a video or like speaking up about something," senior Karli Redd shared.
"It gives you access to a lot more of a larger side of the world," senior Sebastian Romero added, "it's a lot easier to use because not only is it what you're looking for but there's like a variety of ways that you can look at the same thing."
And the kids have a point— with an endless feed of information, there’s a lot to learn.
"Like tying a tie, like instead of having to scroll through YouTube, or Google or nothing like that, there's videos everywhere on it. And then they're less than two, three minutes watch," Romero explained.
Junior Kamrin Moore also added that he's learning on the app, saying "I just learned that you can apply for colleges in your junior year. I did not know."
But with an endless feed of information, there’s also a lot of misinformation out there as well.
Looking through a typical TikTok feed, videos can claim almost anything— for example, that a plane crash happened in someone’s neighborhood, while in reality, it was on a movie set.
Users can report things like misinformation or offensive content, and TikTok can and will then put warnings on some videos, though there’s no guarantee a video will get flagged or taken down.
It’s Ariane Datil’s job as a journalist with Verify to check the facts of stories, including whether viral social media videos on apps like TikTok are true.
"We try to be as present as possible on the app, finding misinformation as it comes to us and debunking it as quickly as possible," Datil said.
The Verify team has its own following on the app, helping users navigate their next swipe, without knowing what will play next.
"It's not going to tell you … now you're tuning into your local news, it's just gonna be a face or a graphic. And it's on you to really figure out if the information that you're consuming is reputable," Datil added.
NaTasha Thorne, a licensed therapist for Eunoia Therapy and Self Development, said that some of this misinformation has led to teens diagnosing themselves with disorders that match the creators they watch on TikTok without seeing a doctor first
"ADHD a lot of times is depression and anxiety… dissociative identity disorder, the multiple personalities.. it becomes this, almost a self-fulfilling cycle… we're seeing a lot of teens kind of self-diagnose themselves, which can be problematic," Thorne said.
This all plays out with little oversight on an app that monetizes views, Thorne adding that "it really does become an issue of, you know, making money and profiting off of mental illness."
But even still, users keep coming back for more.
Thorne explained that the app can create an addiction for people, saying, "When you post make a post and you get a like or something like that…the reward center is activated in your brain… it is addicting because you get used to that dopamine boost."
And Thorne added that she’s still not sure how that will impact teens’ development.
"Not being able to get on TikTok and not being able to have access to TikTok? It really does impact... their socialization at this point," Thorne said.
This can be especially true for teens in high school.
"You could send one thing to somebody else, they can send it to somebody, and then suddenly everybody knows about whatever it is that you're talking about," Romero added.
And while videos might only be a few seconds in total, according to the Wall Street Journal, users spend nearly 200 million hours a day on the platform— that's more than any other social media site
Freshman K'lea Bunting shared, "It depends on the day. So, I can spend up to like, three hours or four, it depends."
TikTok tailors content to the users' interests based on location and how each person interacts with each video.
But TikTok does this in a more niche way than many other social platforms and therefore creates a timeline just For You. So while users learn through TikTok, TikTok learns about them.
"I know personally, my phone is listening to me. So I can go talk about like cows or like something at school or like football, and I'm gonna open my TikTok and it's gonna pop up on my For You page," Redd added.
Artificial intelligence learning might feel off-putting to some, but for these kids, it's just the cost of doing business.
"It's more of a trade…you make money through me watching and liking and commenting. And I get benefit by you know, I get laughter I get enjoyment," Moore explained.
The Homeland Security Committee feels differently about the app and its Chinese-owned parent company— they're concerned that it’s not clear who can see the information TikTok learns about users.
Geoffrey Cain, a Senior Fellow for Critical Emerging Technologies at Lincoln Network TikTok, presented his concerns to the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee in September.
"Americans face the grave and unprecedented threat of software in our pockets that contain powerful surveillance and data gathering capabilities owned by private companies," said Cain. "TikTok, therefore, is a disaster waiting to happen for our security and the privacy of our citizens."
But the app has become a double-edged sword after booming during the pandemic. During that time, TikTok undeniably connected people and information like never before.
"It fosters this sense of belonging and community," Thorne said.
Moore also shared some advice for anyone considering downloading and using the app.
"I would say if you're going to download TikTok come in with a strong mind. A strong heart… and a weak funny bone," she said.
"I think in the history of news, we've expected people to come to us… And now we're having to meet people where they are and right now, they're on TikTok," Datil added.
With an endless feed of information on an app that continues to grow, we might not know the future of TikTok, but we do know there are ways to be more intentional about how you scroll.
The impacts of TikTok go beyond this story— from helping kids do homework, sharing legal advice, or even changing how the music industry sells records.
There's a lot we still have to learn about TikTok, but it's always better to be more informed about the risks you take online.
With an endless feed of information– on an app that continues to grow– we might not know the future of TikTok– but we do know there are ways to be more intentional about how you scroll.