A study among teenage TikTok users found that those who showed addictive tendencies toward the platform performed worse when recalling number sequences. The findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, further suggested that this working memory deficit was in part due to increased depression and anxiety.
As smartphone and social networking technology took over the world, psychology researchers began to discuss the mental health consequences of being “addicted” to your smartphone. Study authors Peng Sha and Xiaoyu Dong discuss findings suggesting that the problematic use of smartphones can actually weaken working memory.
Sha and Dong wondered whether this deficit in working memory may have to do with the increased rates of depression and anxiety among avid users of social media. Notably, a large body of research has suggested that depression and anxiety can impact working memory capacity.
The researchers focused their study on the problematic use of TikTok, a Chinese-owned social networking site that has 1.5 billion users around the world. TikTok allows users to share and watch short videos on their smartphones, and the majority of users are adolescents.
A questionnaire was distributed among 3,036 high school students in China who said they regularly use TikTok. The students completed an adapted version of the Smartphone Addiction Scale, Short Version that replaced the word “smartphone” with “TikTok.” This was used as a measure of TikTok use disorder (TTUD) and addressed factors like interference with daily life and withdrawal. The students also completed measures of depression, anxiety, and stress.
The students next completed forward and backward digit span tests to assess verbal working memory. These tests assessed students’ ability to recall number sequences that were presented to them on a screen and to repeat them back in either the same or the reverse order.
Across the sample, students with higher scores for TikTok use disorder performed worse on both the forward and backward digit span tests — suggesting reduced working memory capacity among those with addictive tendencies toward TikTok. These students also had higher scores for depression, anxiety, and stress.
As the researchers hypothesized, depression, anxiety, and stress seemed to at least partly explain why the problematic use of TikTok was tied to poorer working memory. Depression and anxiety partially mediated the effect between TTUD and forward digit span memory capacity. Depression, anxiety, and stress partially mediated the effect between TTUD and backward digit span memory capacity.
When the researchers analyzed the results separately for males and females, gender differences emerged. Among male students only, stress was not significantly associated with scores on the backward digit span test. Next, although female students had higher scores for TTUD, male students had higher depression, anxiety, and stress scores and lower working memory capacity. The study authors say it is unclear whether the reduced memory capacity seen among male students was due to their higher levels of mental distress.
They also note that their study was not representative of all Chinese adolescents and that future studies will be needed to generalize the findings. Longitudinal research would shed light on the relationship between mental health, TTUD, and memory loss over time.
The study, “Research on Adolescents Regarding the Indirect Effect of Depression, Anxiety, and Stress between TikTok Use Disorder and Memory Loss”, was authored by Peng Sha and Xiaoyu Dong.