TikTok Lite & Co.Why rewards encourage excessive media use

Does the reward function contained in the new TikTok Lite app violate EU rules? The EU Commission is investigating this in a current case against TikTok due to the "risk of serious harm to the mental health of users". How do reward systems in social media or gaming apps influence media use? We provide information on common mechanisms and the associated risks.

As part of the Digital Services Act, the EU Commission has once again initiated formal proceedings against the video platform TikTok. At the end of February 2024, there was already a procedure involving "addictive design", among other things. The new app TikTok Lite, which was launched in Europe this month, is currently under investigation. The app is currently available in France and Spain. The points system is problematic: users who spend a long time on the service, e.g. watching videos, liking content or inviting friends to do so, are rewarded with digital coins. These points can then be exchanged for vouchers, e.g. at online stores such as Amazon.

Update 25.4.2024: TikTok is suspending the bonus program in TikTok Lite for the time being until clarification.

How do social rewards influence media use?

Positive confirmation, success and benefits through rewards create feelings of happiness - even in social media or digital games. This is why sophisticated reward mechanisms in social media apps or games lead us to spend as much time as possible in the application or to use the services repeatedly at different times of the day. These mechanisms influence the reward center in the brain.

Reward systems increase the risk of excessive use and can put younger users in particular under social pressure. 

What mechanisms are used?

Here we present examples of reward mechanisms in apps that are popular with children .

Snapchat: friends reward system 

Snapchat rewards regular Snap exchanges between users with various friendship emojis: If Snapchat friends send each other lots of snaps over long periods of time, they are given certain emojis to document the status of their friendship. The flame symbol is particularly popular. It means that two users have sent each other Snaps on at least three consecutive days. The number next to the flame documents the Snapstreak, i.e.  the number of consecutive days with active contact.

If friendship status is assessed on the basis of usage activity, this can create social pressure for some children and young people. For example, Snapchat writes in its guide to friendship emojis, among other things: "This is one of your Best Friends! You send this Snapchatter a lot of Snaps, but he's not your best friend."

BeReal: Reward for daily posting

The BeReal app also rewards regular exchanges between users. If users post on time, they receive two additional "Bonus BeReal" per day. If users post too late, this function is blocked for the day and they have to try again the next day. If you do not post a picture at all, the pictures of other users will not be displayed.

Very active users start their streak, a flame symbol, after five consecutive posted BeReals. The streak score increases each time a BeReal is posted and is visible to users in their profile. If you post too late on a particular day, the streak expires and you have to start all over again.

Clash of Clans: Reward paths

Online strategy games such as Clash Royale or Clash of Clans run in real time. The game therefore continues to develop when you are offline. The current progress of the game is displayed to players via push notifications on their smartphone. This means they are always informed about what is happening in the game, even when they are not playing. In these games, users can collect rewards in between, for example, by using the app several times a day and completing tasks. If you want to be successful in a real-time strategy game such as Clash of Clans or Clash Royale, you should be online as often as possible.
The provider Supercell writes: "The more you play, the more rewards you can secure with the help of seasonal challenges. All players can unlock and collect items on the Silver Reward Trail. If you purchase the Gold Pass, you can get unlockable rewards exclusively with the Gold Pass."

Tips for parents and guardians

If your children use social media apps or gaming apps:

  1. Find out about the minimum agethe usage guidelines and safety settings of the respective service.
  2. The protection mechanisms of the services only work if the correct age is specified. Therefore, set up the user account together.
  3. Find out about manipulative reward mechanisms in online services. Then find binding rules for usage times and restrictions on app usage together. For example, deactivateapp notifications. Our online tool Media Usage Contract, for example, can help you define usage times and rules.
  4. Actively support your child's online activities.Suitable conversation starters can be found here.
  5. Are you concerned about your child's media usage behavior? Here you can find Help and advice centers.

Self-test: How much social media is healthy?

With the help of tips and control questions, young people can critically assess themselves and find solutions for their social media use.

To the self-test at Ins-Netz-gehen.de