Why TikTok Makes You Feel So Old, According To Psychologists

by Kaitlyn Wylde
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If watching TikTok videos evokes a complicated mix of feelings from FOMO to confusion, you're not alone. Sure, over 40% of users are between ages 16 and 24, but that doesn't totally explain why TikTok, of all things, makes you feel old. Gen Zers and Millennials have a lot in common — they're entrepreneurial, environmentally aware, and tech savvy — so, theoretically, they should be able to share a social media platform experience, too. According to a mental health expert, the fundamental design of TikTok could be the culprit, not the Gen Z-centric content.

"Older users might like what they are seeing but feel somewhat helpless to drive and customize their TikTok experience," clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. tells Bustle. According to Dr. Klapow, because of the way the app is designed, it's easy to passively consume content on TikTok, without even fully understanding what is happening or how it works.

The TikTok Learning Curve

While lots of other social media platforms have video content, TikTok autoplays previews of videos before you click on them. If you find yourself cruising popular hashtags on the Discover page, you might see as many as 16 moving images at the same time — it's dizzying. What’s more, TikTok auto-opens into its own For You Page (#fyp), as opposed to a static home page or profile dashboard. You'll be greeted with a mix of dances, songs, soundbites, movie scenes, jokes, pranks, tutorials and more.

From there, it's easy to fall into the habit of swiping through it without ever putting any intentional thought into what you want to see. On the flip side, other apps require you to curate your own experience. While you can certainly get lost on Instagram's Explore page, videos won't start auto playing without your command, and you can always look ahead to see what content is coming up in the app. With TikTok, you never know what you're going to get, so you're more likely to consume at least some content you don't like (aka the content that makes you feel old) while trying to find content you do like.

Just When You Thought You Got The Hang Of TikTok ...

Some of the content that's easy to follow, like TikTok beauty trends, might become familiar after time. If you watch enough beauty gurus walk you through their morning makeup routine, you’ll get used to the flow, even though each routine is different. That being said, this type of content isn't always consistent. "Our brains recognize the familiar themes but never habituate because there is always a new character, a new dance move, and a variation of the video before," Dr. Klapow explains. As an avid user, you might be very familiar with the Renegade dance — you might even know all the moves. But each person who performs the dance on the app does it in their own way.

For certain people, difficulty understanding TikTok might trigger feelings of stress and exclusion from the get-go. "Some users see the simple content and struggle with grasping the point of the app itself, and feel left out" he explains. Anyone who has ever spent an entire day trying to to learn a TikTok dance only to never record themselves actually doing it, or worse, uploads it only to watch it sit with no views, certainly knows how this feels. "The internal dialog is one of 'I should be able to understand this, but I don’t,' which can feel demoralizing," Dr. Klapow says.

The Gen Z Vs. Millennial Power Play

Separately, millennials who are in the workforce risk more by posting public videos of themselves on TikTok than Gen Z-ers who might not be concerned with their professional online footprint yet. According to psychoanalyst and author Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D, it can be hard for Millennials, Gen X-ers and even Boomers to watch Gen Z-ers exercising their youth and freedom online. "Older generations may be feeling a waning power and position in the world, and it can be hard to watch people who are rising up," he tells Bustle. "It creates feelings of jealousy." Watching something popular that you don't necessarily understand can "heighten that pre-existing sense of otherness, and a declining position in the universe," a.k.a. aging, according to Dr. Rubin.

How To Use TikTok Going Forward

The answer? Dr. Klapow tells Bustle that if you want to understand TikTok, keep it simple, don't put pressure on yourself to post videos if you're not comfortable, and spend some time casually exploring the app to familiarize yourself with the trends and themes. Hashtags like #over30, which has over 365 million views, is a reminder that people outside of the target demographic can have fun using it. But if the app still doesn't make you feel good about yourself, Dr. Rubin suggests limiting the amount of time you spend using TikTok. "You have to remember that you are what you consume — it's not just culinary, it's perceptual, too — so be wise about what you expose yourself to ... "


Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. clinical psychologist and behavioral scientist.

Dr. Jeffrey Rubin, Ph.D. psychoanalyst and author.