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Last week we released a report about TikTok and how history is communicated on the platform. You can read it here. This week, as a follow up, I wanted to share with you a conversation I had about TikTok with a young man who works at Starbucks.

Earlier this week I had to get an oil change for our car, so I drove to Northern Virginia and dropped off the vehicle at a garage. I walked down the road and settled into a Starbucks to catch up on work and emails.

It turned out the garage was running behind schedule, and after an hour or two, a young barista took notice of me. When I went to the counter to refill my water, he struck up a conversation.

“You’re getting work done?” he asked. From his appearance I guessed that he was of South Asian heritage, perhaps Pakistani-American, and was likely a college student.

“There’s always work to do,” I said.

“Are you in IT?” he asked. As a side note, last year on a plane a high school student had asked me if I was a photographer. I’ve also been asked if I’m an attorney. No stranger has yet to guess my correct profession.

“I’m an author,” I replied. (I’m still getting used to saying that.)

“Oh, wow!” he said. “That’s amazing. That’s, like, really hard isn’t it? To make it?” he added.

“It is,” I confessed. “It’s extremely hard. Any success I’ve had has been years and years in the making.”

“Would you do it again?” he asked. It was a provocative question, one I’ve pondered quite a bit lately.

“Maybe I’d go into engineering,” I joked, knowing full well that I would be a terrible engineer.

“That’s what I’m doing,” he said. “Engineering.” We chatted briefly about his engineering plans. I told him that was a very good choice for a major and future employment.

“So, what do you write?” he then asked me.

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“Well, the book I just wrote is about how social media has changed what we know about history,” I said.

Suddenly, his eyes got very large. “That’s so true, though!” he exclaimed. He stepped back and paced behind the bar. “That’s so true, that’s so true,” he said. “That’s so dope,” he added. “I wanna buy this book,” he said. “What’s it called?”

I told him the title, History, Disrupted.

“Is it on Amazon?” he asked. I assured him it was. He then gave me his phone and I entered the name of the book into Google. Interestingly, the book’s Amazon page was low down in the rankings, a good reminder that Google does not pull information from a static cache of data, but rather that Google recommendations are customized based on your search history, location and other factors. The first result on his phone was actually an interview I did about the book with The George Washington University, perhaps because my new friend was a college student in the D.C. area.

The conversation then took a turn. The young man confessed that he was on social media constantly.

“TikTok?” I asked.

“I’m on TikTok all the time,” he reluctantly said. “I just keep scrolling from video to video, and I can’t stop. Sometimes I don’t even know I’m doing it,” he continued. “I’m on social media right now” he said, “even when I’m at work. I look at my screen-time reports and I’m like, whoa.” Then he turned serious. “You won’t get mad at me if I tell you how much time I spend on TikTok?” he asked. I assured him that I would not. “Sometimes it’s 6 or 7 hours per day,” he said, as if he couldn’t believe it himself. “I’m addicted,” and he trailed off with a nervous laugh.

The way he uttered that final sentence shook me. It contained elements of shame, embarrassment and helplessness in just those two simple words. It was as if there was a cry for help hidden in his voice. It shook me, too, because it reminded me of my aunt. My aunt was a lifelong smoker; she died of cancer in 2011. His words triggered a memory, long repressed, of a night when I sat outside with her on the stoop and asked her why she never quit. “I’m addicted,” she said, and she laughed a nervous laugh. The two sentences and the two laughs felt eerily similar. Nervous, resigned, but also as if pleading for help—if only I knew how to give it.

Back at the Starbucks counter, I tried to comfort my new friend by telling him that his TikTok addiction was not his fault. The app was intended to be addictive, the very acts of checking and scrolling designed for maximum engagement and compulsion. Similar to how smokers can become addicted to the very act of smoking, not solely the nicotine, social media platforms are designed to make us hooked on the act of checking our phones and receiving notifications, so much so that we often do not even process the content we’re seeing—or become aware that we’re so helplessly hooked. I offered a few insights based on my research that I thought might help him. He then told me he would read my book and that I should come back to Starbucks at a later point so we could discuss it. We said goodbye, and I walked back to the garage.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since. In the scramble for attention, fame, power and influence, we rush from platform to platform in hopes of being part of the next big phenomenon. But what do we leave behind? The potential harms are never immediate, only revealed much later. Once they are, we offer little in the way of remedies. Millions of people are, literally, left to their own devices, while society moves onto the next product, app or controversy. We leave our students mindlessly scrolling, wondering if anyone will ever help them stop.

Maybe it’s time we invested more in doing so.

Something to ponder this Thanksgiving holiday. Have a happy holiday. Speak to you in December.

History Club