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Can't stop watching TikTok? Brain science may explain why

The social media app, which isn't really that social, is using your own brain to get you hooked.

ARIZONA, USA — If you’ve ever found yourself scrolling through social media at 3 a.m., there’s likely a scientific reason you can’t put your phone down, especially if you’re on TikTok.

The reason? The apps are using your own brain to get you hooked.

Four and a half billion people are estimated to be on social media networks. All of them try to boost the length of time a user stays on, but most of them use interaction like commenting and clicking Likes or Favorites.

TikTok is different. The app is famous for its algorithm, which monitors the length of time users spend on videos and then curates a never-ending playlist from that data.

Users never have to tap on anything, follow anyone or even create their own content. The scroll of videos is the first thing they see when the app opens. The algorithm itself is a closely guarded secret, but social media experts liken it to gambling.

“When you sometimes think about pulling that arm or pushing the button on the slot,” said Dr. Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “That's called random reinforcement. It keeps you coming back for more."

TikTok’s never-ending video feed, she said, is similar to a slot machine. You may not like the first video or the second, but the payoff happens when the algorithm guesses correctly and feeds you a video you’re very interested in. Then, users chase that “high”.

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“So it's hard to pull yourself away,” Albright said. “And it's feeding you exactly what you like.”

Aparajita Bhandari and Sara Bimo are two grad students who did some of the first research into TikTok specifically. They found a social network that isn’t very social.

“On other social media sites, you might be mainly engaging with your friends or family or your network,” Bimo said. “But since on TikTok, you're mainly engaging with the algorithm which is feeding back to you your own interests, you end up with a really like almost like a closed-loop view, interacting with versions of yourself over and over.”

12 News ran a test with a new phone and a new TikTok account. We decided that our new user would be interested in cars. Without ever clicking on anything or following any users, TikTok served up a steady stream of car videos within 15 minutes.

Albright said that kind of hyper-specific targeting could be dangerous, as it tends to reinforce your own beliefs. For example, if you’re an anti-vaxxer, TikTok will eventually discover that interest.

“Suddenly, you get nothing but anti-vax information,” Albright said. “Well, that's pretty much confirming what you thought.”

So what can you do?

Knowing how social media networks target you can help you see that it’s happening.

You can also set limits on social media use for yourself and your kids, and make sure they follow the limits.

RELATED: Here's how kids on TikTok are using soda to fake a positive COVID test

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