TikTok logo on TV.
VasiliyBudarin/Shutterstock.com (edited)

If you grew up before streaming services, you’re probably familiar with channel surfing. Just aimlessly flipping through channels looking for something good to watch. There’s a certain pleasure that comes from this, and TikTok is the modern-day equivalent.

TikTok is still a relatively new social network and there are a lot of people who don’t understand it. Maybe you think it’s just a rip-off of Vine (RIP) or the latest place where kids do stupid things for attention. There’s much more to TikTok than that, and it’s probably a more familiar experience than you realize.

RELATED: Why Is TikTok So Popular? Why the Social Network Is Unique

Channel Surfing Is FOMO

Channel surfing wasn’t really a thing until cable TV came around. Before that, there simply weren’t many channels to flip through. Suddenly, cable TV gave us what seemed like an infinite number of things to watch.

To some people, all of those choices can feel very daunting. They want to see all the options before committing. What if you’re missing something good on a different channel? It’s essentially a form of FOMO—Fear of Missing Out.

That’s where channel surfing comes in. You flip through channel after channel, watching a few minutes here and there, never settling on one channel. It’s a way to get a little taste of everything, small dopamine hits one after another.

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Of course, even the biggest cable TV channel packages aren’t endless. If you surf long enough, you’ll eventually get to the end. That’s where TikTok takes it to the next level.

Flipping = Swiping

If you’ve never used TikTok, the functionality is very reminiscent of flipping through TV channels. You navigate by swiping up and down through a feed of videos. So you get into a loop of watching a video for a few seconds, swipe to the next one, and repeat. Over and over.

If a video isn’t immediately engaging, you can simply swipe up to instantly have something new to watch. It’s exactly the same as channel surfing. Not interested in the first couple of minutes of that sitcom? On to the next channel.

These mechanisms allow you to have a constant feed “new” hitting your brain without committing to one thing.

RELATED: Why Do Streaming TV Services Keep Getting More Expensive?

Truly Endless Entertainment

TikTok is everything you love about channel surfing, but with a few major differences. Unlike cable, there actually is (functionally) an infinite number of things to watch on TikTok. You will never reach the end.

The second major difference is TikTok figures out what you like. Not only are there endless channels to surf through, but the channels are tailored specifically to you. TikTok is very good at this, eerily so. Use it for a couple of days and it will quickly figure out what you like.

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These two differences are what fuel the addictive nature of TikTok. It figures out what you like, then serves you an endless supply of it. Once you start scrolling through the feed it’s hard to get out of the rabbit hole.

Wait, Don’t Leave!

TikTok tap again to exit.

The last difference between TikTok and channel surfing might be the biggest. When you’re done channel surfing—let’s say you didn’t find anything to keep your attention—you can simply turn off your TV. That’s it, you’re out.

That’s not how TikTok works. Sure, you can go straight to the home screen to exit the app, but TikTok on Android has a nasty little trick. If you attempt to leave the app by going back, TikTok will serve up a new video and ask you to tap back again to confirm you want to leave.

This does two things. First, it doesn’t exit the app as you intended. It’s purposefully keeping you in the app and making you do another action to leave. Second, it’s showing you something new to attempt to keep you drawn in.

Both channel surfing and swiping through TikTok are different forms of the same thing—mindless scrolling. There are certainly times for mindless entertainment, but don’t let it take over your life.

RELATED: Nothing Beneficial Comes From Mindless Scrolling

Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as a News Editor at XDA Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
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