“When I sit in the Silliman library alone like this, I really feel like I have main character energy.  Like I could be the female protagonist of a K-drama, right?” This was a question my friend asked after a long night of studying. Funny — and slightly inane — as it may seem, I genuinely believe that this conversation, along with similar phrases like “You have to start romanticizing your life” or being “THAT girl,” truly captures the zeitgeist of Gen Z culture, particularly over the last two years, with the astronomical rise of TikTok.

Something that frequently comes up in arguments with my mother is the idea that millennials and Gen Zs are particularly self-centered, more so than any generation that came before us.  Her argument is — surprise, surprise — that social media and the age of selfies has turned all of us into brain-dead, narcissistic zombies who are eternally beholden to our glowing screens.  In the age of TikTok, like-minded folks seem to believe that this has become even more true, as today’s youth are supposedly content to glaze over while looking at short, looping videos (Seriously? We can’t even maintain focus for the length of an average YouTube video?) that often have little meaning, ranging from amateurish attempts at comedy to personal anecdotes or — worst of all — thirst traps.

So what does it mean to be the “main characters” in our own lives?  To me, whether one interprets this as being positive or negative is partly predicted on a cultural divide. American culture has long been one of drastic individualism, long before the first video was ever posted to TikTok. Children are encouraged to develop holistically as individuals and explore their own interests and strengths, and adults are encouraged to stand out instead of conforming, even when this is to the detriment of relationships with others. Self-care comes first — you put on your own oxygen mask before you help anyone else, so to speak. I would argue that TikTok is a natural product of a culture that tells everyone that they are uniquely important and always have something to bring to the table, even when it may not be fully true. It therefore makes sense that someone like my mother may not fully embrace social media and the narcissism she perceives it as fueling, because she is Chinese and comes from a family with more traditional East Asian values.

Meanwhile, as a third-culture kid, I occasionally feel torn between condemning the hedonistic, egotistic culture of apps like TikTok and wanting to lap it up and take part in it myself. As a queer only child who, not being fully Chinese, grew up as an ethnic minority in Hong Kong, finding real-life role models or older people to emulate who were actually similar to me was incredibly difficult. Without the virtual connections provided by social media, it can be incredibly isolating to figure out complex issues of identity without representation, and I am far from the only one who spent my middle school years in the early 2010s trawling through Tumblr looking for the tiniest crumbs of validation of my developing identity. TikTok is to today’s teens what Tumblr was to me, in that it has the ability to provide that necessary safe haven to individuals who may truly need it. Content that is often dismissed as “cringe” or attention-seeking may come off that way to certain viewers, but to others, particularly neurodivergent and queer individuals, it can be hugely gratifying to see others flaunt these parts of themselves that they have been told to hide in their real lives. This is especially true when it comes from content creators that they follow and sometimes even look up to online, even if it is on the smallest of screens. Beyond that, the sheer size of TikTok’s platform, its many niche corners and its ability to turn any one of us into a celebrity overnight means that sometimes, people who are not typically otherwise portrayed in mass media become enormously popular online, and this has the ability to send the message to today’s youth that they, too, can be accepted, even if they do not fit into the conventional mold their family or environment has imposed upon them.

At the end of the day, the connotations of being the “main character” come down to a reflection of modern American culture. What I see is the gray area between a culture of individualism and a culture of egotism. TikTok is neither good nor evil — it amplifies every voice and every opinion almost indiscriminately, and it is up to us and how we use it to turn it either into a tool for empowerment and activism or an endless time-suck that turns today’s children into illiterate narcissists.

Mel Adams | mel.adams@yale.edu

MEL ADAMS