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Wales Online

'I got addicted to TikTok and it ruined my life'

A student has told how her life fell apart when she became addicted to social media site TikTok. She told how she would even use the app while driving, as well as late into the night and during uni lectures.

The problem was spotted by a GP when Rebecca - not her real name - was prescribed sleeping pills. Rebecca, 22, said she had a "comfortable" childhood in London, excelling at school and having supportive family and friends.

When TikTok came along, she was already someone who spent a lot of time online. She soon got into TikTok, a video app, when it was launched, reports the Mirror.

She said: "I had used social media quite intensively in the past, like most members of my generation. I had a Facebook page, a Twitter account but was most active on Instagram, where I would post regular updates which eventually attracted thousands of followers. I suppose I found Instagram quite addictive but it never became a problem in my life. Then along came TikTok.”

Before long, Rebecca said, she was spending "every free minute" on TikTok. She would upload and watch videos during university sessions when she should have been paying attention.

She added: “When these were streamed during lockdown, that became even easier. I withdrew from social engagements to spend time alone devouring TikTok content.

"I developed a strong urge to pick up the phone at any time of day and night. I would stay awake late into the night using the app, I’d use it in the bathroom, and even while driving, which was madness.

“It began to interfere with my sleep cycle, which I now recognise had an effect on my mood. I would respond to that by using the app even more – it became a vicious cycle.”

When preparing for exams she would find herself lacking an attention span for the study material and was constantly on TikTok instead, she said. It was her GP who alerted her to the fact something had gone wrong with her life when she went to ask for sleeping medication.

“I realised that my mental health was in a bad place and that’s when a friend of my parents recommended Paracelsus Recovery,” Rebecca said.

Paracelsus Recovery has been dubbed the world’s most secretive and expensive rehabilitation clinic. Its 15-strong London team include leading experts in the field of addiction and focus on one client at a time.

They include psychiatrists, live-in therapists and specialist psychotherapists. It costs £56,000 a week and regularly treats well-known business people, royalty and celebrities.

Paracelsus said its clients 'experienced the most intense withdrawal symptoms when they were separated from their phones' (PA)

Her family funded a short course of treatment at one of Paracelsus’ clinics, which helped to identify underlying issues, stress from her studies, family pressure and low self esteem, which had led her to “self-medicate”.

“I worked with them to establish boundaries around app use and phone use in general. They said that ideally I should get off TikTok altogether, at least for six months, at which point we could re-evaluate,” Rebecca said.

“They helped me to establish positive coping mechanisms for my underlying issues, and I had CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and hypnotherapy.”

Within a few weeks of coming off social media, Rebecca said she felt like a “new woman”. Her studies improved and she started to re engage with friends in the real world.

“Nine months on, I occasionally use social media again, but have largely stayed away from TikTok. I feel like a great cloud has lifted from my life,” she said.

Rebecca’s story comes as experts have branded video sharing app TikTok “the uncut heroin of social media” after a surge in addiction cases linked to the platform. Addiction experts warn it is designed to get users hooked after just a few seconds on the app and its promise of “worldwide fame” causes chemical changes in young brains.

The Chinese social media site that allows users to create 15-second videos often accompanied by music, has become one of the most downloaded apps in the world. It boasts around four million active users in the UK who watch or record dances, pranks, stunts and jokes on the platform.

In response to addiction experts’ warnings that the app is designed to get users hooked after mere seconds on the app, TikTok said it “cares deeply about the safety and wellbeing of young people” and has built in reminders to users to take a break from the app. Paracelsus Recovery, which has clinics in London and Zurich, said it had seen an “explosion” in young clients struggling with TikTok dependency.

Many have become hooked on the site during the coronavirus lockdown, when they have been starved of other forms of social contact.

Chief executive Jan Gerber said: “We are seeing clients, most between 18 and 22 years old, who are coming to see us for issues such as eating disorders, substance dependency or gaming addiction. Yet they experienced the most intense withdrawal symptoms when they were separated from their phones. We’re talking about one-hour periods when the client was in a therapy session or eating a meal.”

Social media dependency was dangerous “in and of itself”, she said, but could also lead to “chemical changes” in a young person’s brain, making them more vulnerable to mental health conditions and substance abuse issues.

“As many of TikTok’s one billion monthly users are between the ages of 16 and 24, we need to make sure parents and caregivers understand these neurochemical dangers,” she said. “From the evidence we are seeing, TikTok is the uncut heroin of social media.”

Paracelsus said it started to see cases 18 months ago and said that over the past 12 months referrals for TikTok addiction have increased five-fold. Mr Gerber said social media also teaches young people to place more importance on themselves, highlighting a link in research between narcissistic traits and social media use.

“With so many young people starved of social connection during the past two years, it makes sense why their TikTok use has skyrocketed,” he said. “But the more they rely on social media to fill this void, the more likely they are to develop narcissistic personality traits.

“Therefore, we could see an entire generation struggling with a lack of empathy and loneliness, which they then self-medicate with social media apps like TikTok.”

Paracelsus treats TikTok addiction using a similar methodology to existing substance-abuse programmes. It has produced the first list of red flag warning signs of TikTok dependency, and advice for parents or young people worried about TikTok use.

TikTok said in a statement: “We care deeply about the safety and wellbeing of young people. We build youth wellbeing into our policies, empower parents and teens with tools and resources, limit evening push notifications and proactively surface in-feed reminders to take breaks from our app.”