This Is Your Brain On TikTok (And Other Drugs)

“How TikTok Is Wiring Gen Z’s Money Brain. Endless videos about the economy and consumerism are giving 20-somethings a case of ‘money dysmorphia.'”

Such was the title and subtitle of an article in the Wall Street Journal last weekend. In the infinite algorithmic loop of TikTok, users are apparently bombarded with videos discussing imminent recession (despite strong economic indicators in reality) alongside influencers and ads proclaiming the latest necessary water bottle, bag, or Broadway show. And the constant exposure to those competing messages—doomerism and consumerism if you will—causes people to feel “split in half.”

Now, I am not on TikTok, and I don’t foresee a future where I am on TikTok, so I’ll admit I began reading this article with a certain amount of smugness. Sure, this “money dysmorphia” is no fun, but haven’t these perpetually-online young people done this to themselves? Isn’t this the price you would expect to pay for getting your news and life advice from strangers on an ad-incentivized web application?

But about half-way through the article I realized that it wasn’t really about TikTok at all, or even about “Gen Z” (whatever that even means—generations are almost entirely arbitrary anyway). It was really about all of us, and all of the voices we listen to (and sometimes the noise we’re subjected to).

Our brains and bodies are on one hand more well-equipped to deal with bad news than good news. Our instincts have been largely honed by learning from bad things happening to other people and ourselves, and while there is no real comfort in bad things happening to us, there is a sort of clarity that comes from the near-instant gut reactions of “fight or flight.” And so we seem to be in some ways more predisposed to bad news than good news. Maybe bad news is less confusing.

But on the other hand our brains and bodies also work in tandem to release feel-good chemicals when we engage in various activities, and sometimes the quickest shortcut to that chemical reaction is to participate in the social contagion of purchasing things or experiences that we think signal a particular status or affinity.

So the problem for us is that many if not all of the voices and noises we listen to are designed with the purpose of keeping us operating at the level of animal instinct. Fear sells, and desire sells, and if we aren’t careful, we end up doing a lot of indiscriminate buying from both of them. Whether we hear their pitches on TikTok or Instagram or the Wall Street Journal or Fox News or MSNBC or Walter Magazine makes no real difference in the end. What matters is whether we are developing the tools to recognize the pitches for what they are: “a crummy commercial!”

I hear from a lot of people older than Gen Z who seem to also feel “split in half.” Without ever being on TikTok they are still dealing with competing messages and priorities, and it can be extremely disorienting. Discerning what is good is hard work.

But the first step in this process of discernment is quieting the cacophony of voices and noises catering to our basest instincts. One of the best things you can do for your financial health is to turn down the volume of your life. To seek out wise voices intentionally rather than having a constant barrage of news anchors, podcasters, and influencers. To make time and space in your calendar for genuine reflection and conversation. To be less split in half by being wholly present in the moment as it happens.

This is, in my biased view, one of the most important services Beacon provides to our clients. We help create the time and space for slow, quiet conversation about what matters. From there, decisions and actions with your money are driven not by loud external voices, but by a calm resolve that you are simply doing the right thing.


The content above is for informational and educational purposes only. The links and graphs are being provided as a convenience; they do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by Beacon Wealthcare, nor does Beacon guarantee the accuracy of the information.

Jared Korver
[email protected]

A product of small-town North Carolina (Carthage, to be exact), I’m proudly married to my best friend and co-adventurer, Amy. Together, we have two sons–Miles and Charlie–and could more or less start a library from our home. I love being outside, can’t read enough, am in the habit of writing haikus, and find food and coffee to be among life’s greatest treasures.