How TikTok Addiction Overtook a Successful Doctor’s Life

The euphoric high from having one’s content go viral releases a powerful hit of dopamine. Until a family intervention, Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler was powerless to stop chasing it on TikTok
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As a doctor, I probably seem like the least likely person to become addicted to something—and certainly not to social media. However, my habit wasn’t a quaint pastime, with me breezily strolling through a digital playground. This addiction nearly destroyed my relationships with my wife and twin teenage daughters. Social media addiction is real. And it’s severely damaging, and it overtakes you like a fire slowly consuming your house when you don’t even smell any smoke.

My social media match was struck over two years ago. My twin girls (14 years old at the time) said there are some really good doctors on TikTok and that they thought I’d be a great addition. We can help you get started, they said. I figured as long as they wouldn’t make me dance, I’d give it a try. 

It started innocently enough, making and reacting to other users’ health-related videos. I enjoyed TikTok as a creative outlet. Since the platform had mostly Gen-Z users at the time I started out, to make my videos more relatable, I adopted their nomenclature “cap”—Gen-Z slang for “not true” (and hence, “not cap” means true). So, I began reacting to videos, often not saying a word but donning my blue hat emblazoned with “CAP” on the front, which meant the health information that I was reacting to simply wasn’t true (notably, TikTok’s algorithms don’t fact-check at all before a video goes on its platform). Soon, my videos started receiving hundreds of thousands, then millions of views. How did I feel? It’s not an exaggeration when I tell you that this sort of quick fame felt like having 10 espresso shots.

The euphoric high one receives when a video goes viral is from the release of dopamine, a small yet powerful neurochemical—this is precisely what makes common vices like drugs, gambling, and sex feel so good; it’s also why these activities can be addictive. Coffee stimulates dopamine, too (hence that espresso analogy). This is the exact reason social media can be addictive. And for viewers on TikTok, scrolling from one video to the next is akin to repeatedly pushing the button on a slot machine. Research found that gambling can become addictive because it’s laced with unpredictability.  On TikTok, you don’t know if the next clip will be a great one or a total fail. If it’s good, ”ka-ching” goes the dopamine in your brain. Have you ever been surprised to find that you just spent an hour or two on social media? That was the dopamine hitting. 

Dr. Brian Boxer Wachler, M.D.

As a creator, watching my videos go viral kept me coming back. Again and again. I would constantly refresh my screen to aggrandize my ego and bear witness to thousands of more views on my video with each screen refresh. I’d wake up in the morning in a giddy haze to find I had 10,000 or more new followers. I set goals for myself and became obsessed with reaching them. I crossed the 100,000-follower mark. Then I achieved the holy grail for influencers: 1 million followers. Then 2 million. Then over 3 million.

Unbeknownst to me, my loved ones were paying a hefty price. At home, I was more concerned with my virtual children than my daughters. They would eagerly tell me about their day—a rarity for teens—yet I was craning my neck over my device, responding to the deluge of comments, tags, and DMs. I was listening to my daughters…but was I really?  Nope. And this wasn’t limited to home life. When we’d go out for dinner, our conversations were dominated by TikTok and I was always the one bringing it up. The same went for my time with my wife.  

I didn’t appreciate that I had been missing out on family experiences because I would sneak away to be on TikTok during events, such as my girls’ volleyball games, and even while on our vacations. Once, at a resort, I was wearing my signature social media attire (blue scrubs, hat, and mask cradling my neck) and proceeded to do a TikTok Live, poolside—you can imagine the looks I got from everyone clad in their bathing suits and enjoying the day.

My family knew what I was blind to see: I was an addict. One day, the three of them held a sit-down TikTok intervention with me. At first, I was resentful. “How could my daughters, the ones who got me started, now not be happy for my success?” So I doubled down on content to be more successful, “to show them”—not exactly healthy behavior after a family member explains what you are doing is hurting them.

Then everything came to a screeching halt. With one false move, I’d violated TikTok’s community guidelines. Back then, the algorithm punished me for the transgression by not promoting my videos for two full weeks. In this period, I began to experience characteristic withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, mood changes, and mental health challenges. But this was the purge that I needed, as it allowed me the clarity to see that I was, indeed, addicted. I cried over the guilt of what I put my family through.

Was my TikTok addiction an aberration among adults? It turns out, no, it was not. Of adults who are online, about 39% of them admitted to social media addiction, to a degree. That’s quite a sobering statistic. Social media addiction is not just a teen issue, it’s a potential problem for anyone who uses it. But few are addressing this issue for adults. If this problem impacted me, a doctor who by the nature of his profession should know better, it could affect many people.

I feel this growing into an emergency situation among many Americans. That’s what inspired me to write a book, INFLUENCED: The Impact of Social Media on Our Perception. There is no official diagnosis for social media addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V, the authoritative source for mental health disorders. As a physician, influencer, and undergraduate psych major, I’ve taken it upon myself to help to fill this void so we can see the warning signs, learn what to do to curb usage, and stop a potential addiction for ourselves and our children.  

I’ve included strategies for parents to have credibility when they speak to their children about their social media usage, as their brains are even more susceptible to the impact of these platforms. In a way, there is a widespread experiment occurring with social media and our youth, and brain scans (functional MRI) of children and adolescents are showing that changes are now occurring. One study found activation in a reward center called the nucleus accumbens in the brains of high school students, but not in college students. While looking at risk-taking pictures compared to non-risky pictures, high school students were found to have reduced activation of brain areas involved in cognitive control. This finding wasn’t observed in undergraduates. We won’t know the impact for another 10 or 20 years when we will see how social media impacts them as adults.

In the meantime, information and insights are the power that we have. That’s the main reason why I wrote my book—I hope I am providing the power of knowledge on how we can live healthy lives and use social media responsibly to help us all grow.

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