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  • Writer's pictureallison zinnick

Unmasking the Dark Side of TikTok: How Unpredictable Rewards and Instant Gratification Drove Me Away

Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with a compulsive gambling problem, there is no longer a need to suffer in silence. The following is my story and my story alone. I'm not an expert or a medical professional. Links to resources can be found at the bottom of this post.

Hi. I'm Allison, a compulsive gambler.

It still makes me shudder to say those words outside of my group. But the reason I'm saying them out loud is because I want to help someone feel less alone.

That being said - if you know me in real life - no ya don't. :)

I recently relapsed after having 1 year of gambling free. I had one of the worst years of my life, and our healthcare system in shambles, I looked for an escape. I saw an email in the junk folder from a casino site. That's all it took. Next thing you know, it's all I want to do. I'm hiding it from people. I'm drinking to cope with the anxiety of doing something I know I shouldn't be doing. And then I got caught.

That was 21 days ago.

I joined TikTok during the pandemic, like millions did, as a way to connect with the outside world while being trapped inside. In the last four years, I've gained almost 50K followers - which is cool. Except, in Canada, we don't make anything from that. Nonetheless, I love TikTok, and I've built some amazing friendships. It's also a great creative outlet.

But one video made me stop in my tracks. In short - she said, the way that TikTok manipulates the algorithm is identical to the way a slot machine works.

It's not a new concept, there have been many think pieces on this over the years. But I don't think I truly thought about the danger of it - for a recovering addict - until I saw that video.

It's a concept called intermittent reinforcement, participating in something in anticipation of the occasional reward. This phenomenon is often seen in addictive behaviours, such as gambling or compulsive smartphone use, where individuals persist in the behaviour despite the unpredictable nature of the rewards.

From a creative point of view, the TikTok algorithm is designed to keep you on the app. As she notes in the video, the algorithm works like a slot machine. It gives you a taste of success every once in a while, a surge in followers, a viral video. And then it takes it away. There are thousands of accounts dedicated to teaching users 'tips and tricks' on how to find success on TikTok. The truth is though, you may as well head to the casino and put $100 on red.

The more I read into the concept of intermittent reinforcement, and how it related to TikTok, the angrier I got. This thing that I loved, this place that brought me joy and comfort, was toxic. Especially for someone who is trying to eliminate addictive behaviours.

The way that the algorithm operates is the same beast that fuels casinos both online and in person.

For that reason, I had to say goodbye. I didn't delete my account, but I did delete the app. I need to take a break from the addiction. Is there a TikTok Anonymous group? :). What a weird feeling, to give up something that brings you joy. I recognize that if I'm trying to give up gambling, which operates under the concept of intermittent reinforcement, than I must give up the thing that utilizes the same method. Being on that app was causing me to be addicted to my phone. It was causing me to ignore responsibilities. It was causing me to be irritable and unpleasant.

I'm not sure if it's forever. Until I get a better handle on coping with my trauma from the last year, earning back the trust and mending my relationships with the people that I hurt, saying goodbye to TikTok is a great first step.

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