It’s no secret that TikTok is one of the most popular social media apps for Gen Z right now. On the app, you can find news, trending topics, celebrity happenings, and creators celebrating the highs and lows of life. And while TikTok can be a place for creativity and inspiration, the app can also be detrimental to young women’s self-esteem. Specifically, seeing everyone’s “highlight reel” complete with flattering lighting and angles can lead to unrealistic beauty standards and high expectations.
Nowadays, nearly anything can be edited, trimmed, smoothed, blurred, or filtered — so much that we don’t often remember what a “natural” face or picture looks like. This can lead many women to aim for perfection or develop the overwhelming fear of not being enough. With the rising popularity of TikTok, Gen Z is constantly exposed to videos and images depicting how they “should” look, act, and exist. And although the entertaining platform brings a lot of laughs, it can also be harmful.
Social Media Directly Impacts Confidence & Self-Esteem
Addictive use of social media has been linked to lower self-esteem in university students, and excessive social media use in adolescence is associated with the same exact thing — along with poor sleep quality, anxiety, and depression. According to a 2016 study on social media use, it’s common for young women to compare themselves to others on apps like TikTok; they frequently look for pictures and videos of what they aspire to look or be like. Dr. Michelle Solomon, the lead researcher and psychologist behind the study, found that this comparison cycle might not be intentional at first; someone might see a random video on their FYP one day, then naturally exhibit an obsessive habit of seeking out videos of other women to emulate. This can, in turn, cause a downward spiral of comparison.
Carla Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and social media expert, adds that there is a difference between self-esteem and self-confidence — and for young women, TikTok can impact both.
“Self-esteem builds over time,” Dr. Manly tells Her Campus. “Unlike self-confidence, which is based on one’s looks, attributes, or skills, self-esteem is built throughout one’s life as a result of feeling valued, worthy, respected, and appreciated.”
Dr. Manly also states, “Negative comments [on social media] can push young girls to feel less valued, therefore having a lower self-esteem — whereas compliments can build a girl’s self-confidence in their looks, but they may not feel valued…which affects self-esteem.”
your “For You” Page promotes Unrealistic Beauty Standards
The “For You Page” (FYP) is TikTok’s version of a “feed” where videos are visible for anyone to see. Your FYP is curated based on the type of content you typically interact with — from specific hashtags to music, dance, life hacks, food, comedy, celebrity news, and more — sprinkled with a mix of “random” content throughout. In addition to infinite viral videos and trends, TikTok is home to millions of famous, verified creators who consistently post content on the app — and as a result, they have millions of views and a dedicated following. For young women on TikTok, it can become extremely tempting to compare everyday life to these famous creators.
For context, a simple video of someone doing their makeup or getting ready can go viral in seconds. Many TikTok creators (particularly in the beauty space) have a certain unmistakable “look” — clear skin, full lips, high cheekbones, and flawlessly-applied makeup — all characteristics that society deems as desirable. You’ll often find that women of all ages flock to the comments of these beauty videos to share their jealousy, make self-deprecating jokes about their appearance, or express their desire to have certain physical traits — which can be a recipe for lower self-esteem and reduced confidence.
TikTok Can Make You Feel Like You’re Not Enough
It can be extremely difficult for young women to not compare themselves to others on TikTok — especially when the standards for success and beauty are set by mega-famous influencers like Addison Rae and Charli D’Amelio. These young women have taken the app by storm and gained millions of followers in just a few years. In most of their content, their makeup appears perfect, they’re wearing an amazing outfit, and they appear to be living their “best lives” — although we know that even the biggest influencers navigate battles of their own. However, young women might see TikTok accounts like Addison’s and think, “Why don’t I look like that every day?” In addition to the existing beauty and body standards for women, I often wonder if famous TikTokers’ sheer presence on the app creates an even higher expectation.
When TikTok and social media promote the “ideal” standard for attractiveness, it can be difficult for young women to escape the critical voice in their minds that says they are not enough. Tragically, women are no stranger to this type of self-criticism, and often take drastic measures like over-exercising, counting calories, feeling pressure to have the “perfect” makeup look, and even modeling their look and lifestyle to mimic that of famous TikTokers.
the Comment Section Doesn’t Help, Either
When it comes to self-esteem, the comments section on TikTok can be equally as harmful as the FYP. For instance, Addison and Charli’s comment sections often feature a mix of hateful comments and critiques. This may seem commonplace for celebrities with a huge following; however, the underlying tone of comparison and low self-esteem speaks volumes about young women’s psyche.
For example, in this video by TikToker Sydney Melman in which she’s doing her makeup, comments include: “Brb I’m just going to cry in self-pity,” “Everyone is pretty except for me how wonderful,” and “You’re what I think I look like.” They can almost be viewed as compliments, but at the end of the day, we are still seeing a group of young women putting themselves down by comparing their looks to others — which is not only harmful but heartbreaking.
TikTok can be the perfect app for a good laugh, learning how to cook, and dancing with your friends, but the truth is, there’s a dark side that’s often overlooked. Although everyone uses TikTok differently, one thing is for certain: social media often represents the “highlight reel” of people’s lives. Rather than showing the raw, unfiltered moments in life, creators tend to share what they want the world to see. As a natural result, young women spend hours on the app, and are exposed to what society deems as “perfect” without even realizing it. As a result, they consistently feel as though they are not enough.
Fortunately, many creators are starting to recognize that social media is just a big highlight reel, and are trying to take steps toward greater authenticity. There are even TikTok trends that poke fun at unrealistic beauty standards, and videos that encourage young women to celebrate their natural looks. Honestly, TikTok could use more of these videos. It’s important to remind women that famous content creators are human, too — textured skin, split ends, and all.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D. Clinical Psychology
Hawi, N. S., & Samaha, M. (2017). The relations among social media addiction, self-esteem, and life satisfaction in university students. Social Science Computer Review, 35(5), 576-586.
Solomon, M. (2016). Social media and self-evaluation: The examination of social media use on identity, social comparison, and self-esteem in young female adults. William James College.
Woods, H. C., & Scott, H. (2016). # Sleepyteens: Social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Journal of adolescence, 51, 41-49.