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A phone displaying the TikTok logo.
TikTok exploded in Nigeria during the 2020 lockdowns. Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Young Nigerians are flocking to TikTok - why it’s a double-edged sword

Social media plays a number of roles in people’s lives. These platforms influence the way people communicate, connect and transmit information. This is especially true for young people who revel in social media’s speed, accessibility and public nature.

TikTok is one such space. It’s a micro-video sharing social media platform where users can create short, usually funny, videos and share them with a broader community of individuals on the same platform and beyond. A report by Sensor Tower in December 2020 indicates that TikTok has been downloaded over 2.6 billion times worldwide. In January 2021 alone, it was downloaded 62 million times.

It’s very popular with young audiences – and Nigerians are no exception. Tiktok is gaining dominance by the day, and is gradually diverting young Nigerians from other social media platforms, like Instagram. Of all the social media apps in existence, TikTok gained a 31.9% market share within Nigeria in 2020.

Young people create and take part in viral challenges; they churn out funny and interesting videos such as short comedy skits and dance moves. And, as our new study shows, it boosted the mental health of some young Nigerians in the earlier days of the COVID pandemic, when lockdowns and isolation were the norm. Some even described it as therapeutic.

As a 25-year-old respondent from Abuja, Nigeria told us:

I don’t know what would have become of me if not for TikTok. When I make videos, I am surprised at the number of likes and comments I receive, and these likes and comments go a long way in making me happy…

We believe that by harnessing some of the attributes of TikTok videos, such as pranks and related content, Nigeria’s psychologists and others in the mental health space could find a new method to manage young people’s psychological challenges.

A source of wellbeing and wealth

For our study, we recruited 10 young adults who used TikTok during the 2020 COVID lockdowns in Nigeria. All 10 research participants – aged 19 to 31 – were selected through a snowballing sampling technique across five different states in Nigeria - Abuja, Anambra, Delta, Enugu, and Benue.

Due to the difficulty of meeting face-to-face amidst the COVID pandemic, and the novelty of TikTok, the research population was scarce. A majority of the participants chose to speak virtually, conducting interviews via email, WhatsApp messenger and telephone calls. However, this meant we had enough time to spend with the respondents, digging deep into their experiences, and yielding extensive qualitative data.

We interviewed all participants, using the principle of information power. All participants provided insights into how they coped with TikTok during the lockdown.

We are aware of the subjective nature of our study. Subjective-self entails knowing the qualities that will enhance the current study as well as the belief the researcher have about using TikTok amidst the pandemic. We believe that these attributes and their firm understanding and knowledge of using TikTok, put them in the right position to conduct the current study.

It’s not just young Nigerians who see TikTok as a form of therapy. Mental health content is burgeoning on the platform. For instance, the hashtags #mentalhealth and #therapistsoftiktok have 15.3 billion and 318 million views, respectively. Even licensed therapists are using it to provide professional counselling and mental health support.

Bryony Porteous-Sebouhian, a writer for Mental Health Today, writes that the COVID pandemic accelerated the space’s evolution towards being an accessible and affordable space for mental health education use by therapists. She also credits its growth to the broader de-stigmatisation of mental health issues and the app’s young users, who are more comfortable disclosing mental health problems.

There is no doubt, however, that social media is a double-edged sword: while it has benefits – reported in more than just our study – it has its downsides, too.

Pew Research Center reports that social media is “nearly omnipresent” in the lives of young people. Social media benefits young people by helping them share thoughts and ideas, develop communication skills, and pursue their careers of interest.

However, as with most technologies, there are also downsides. Specifically, the National Institute of Mental Health warns that social media can negatively affect people who are vulnerable to mental illness. Furthermore, the institute states that young adults (aged 18 to 25) have the highest prevalence of mental challenges of any adult age group.

Also, social media could be addictive to young people. Thus, students’ access to social media has been shown to affect their academic performance negatively. With the current movement of almost all human endeavours into the virtual space, social media has become a paradise for cybercriminals; information and data theft is becoming rampant.

Moving forward

Our research shows that young Nigerians, who are renowned for their ingenuity in entertainment spaces, can and do use TikTok as yet another positive space to build their personal brands, create connections and bolster their mental health.

To curtail the harmful effects of social media, educators and other stakeholders should run campaigns in schools, places of worship, and community centres to create awareness. Focus needs to be placed on responsible use of digital platforms. Security apps like Famisafe can be deployed to detect suspicious photos, and alert parents if their children receives any.

Stronger anti-cybercrime laws ought to be passed and implemented. And to regulate social media use, institutions of learning should enact rules curtailing social media usage during lectures and library sessions.

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