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A woman riding a bus with graphics showing TikTok noises coming from her phone
Image: Kat Wootton / Shutterstock

Is TikTok making London transport unbearable?

Something very annoying is afoot across the capital

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

Ask any Londoner what they think of the capital’s relentless soundscape, with its click-clacking Lime bikes, beeping contactless payments and nee-nawing sirens. They’re likely to call it testing at best, hellish at worst. But there’s a new sound on the block that is so foul, so irritating, so ubiquitous, that it makes the screeching of the Central line sound like the chirping of parakeets.

We’re talking about the people who brazenly play TikTok (or YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat), out loud – from their phones – on public transport. Because right now it’s an epidemic. Since its UK launch in 2017, TikTok has brought a plague of issues upon London’s public transport system: people are filming others without their consent, it brought us the infamous TikTok tap dancer and some people even took up a whole tube carriage to host a Christmas dinner. Still, the worst of all is the noise – and if you’re taking the bus in London these days, dollars to doughnuts you’re going to be personally victimised by the maddening jumpy broadcast that is someone else’s For You Page. 

Part of the omnipresence of rogue phone noise lies in the very nature of the apps: when opening TikTok or Instagram Reels, it’s inevitable to be assaulted by videos playing at volume. Designed to keep you hooked to the feed like an addict, when one video ends the footage plays on relentlessly. And, given that 88 percent of adults in the UK have a smartphone, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid unwanted app racket in public. Is it just another annoyance that comes with living in the capital – or has TikTok made taking public transport in London actually intolerable?

A right nuisance

A dog barking. The chugging bassline of ‘My Barn My Rules’. Four uses for pasta water you CANNOT sleep on. A sped-up, squeaky version of a Lana Del Rey song. Someone doing an impression of ‘your situationship in Hackney’. 

It’s likely to irk the best of us, but playing unwanted music or videos in public spaces can cause adverse reactions for people with hidden disabilities and disorders. ‘Loud noises coming from strangers’ phones aren’t just annoying,’ says Marion Marincat, an audio equality advocate and founder of Mumbli, a hearing wellness platform. ‘They can trigger very strong emotional reactions in some people.’

People with ADHD, chronic fatigue, tinnitus, autism, anxiety and misophonia (an acute sensitivity to sounds) are more affected by clamour than others. ‘About 50 percent of people have quite low tolerance for noise disturbance,’ says Marincat. ‘TikTok can be a trigger.’

A person with headphones on a tube
Photograph: Shutterstock

Now 38, the audio activist lost his hearing aged 26. He now uses a hearing implant, but this means he is much more sensitive to background noises. ‘The main problem with hearing aids is that the background noises are too intrusive’, he says.

But when noises are causing Marincat discomfort in a public space, he sometimes feels helpless. ‘It’s hard to confront someone like that as a fellow passenger,’ he says. ‘And I wouldn’t advise confrontation because I don’t think people who play TikTok out loud are necessarily wired into being aware of their surroundings.’

As well as being grating and thoughtless, rogue phone blasters are a public nuisance – worse than pesky brazen seagulls or tone-deaf buskers. ‘It is a form of noise pollution,’ says Nigel Rodgers, national secretary for Pipedown, a UK-wide campaign against piped music in public. 

It feels like being a prisoner to someone else’s choices

‘I love music, but it’s my choice whether I listen to it in public,’ he says. ‘It feels like being a prisoner to someone else’s choices, and it definitely leads to frustration and rage. These sounds are not wanted. They are a pain in the ear. For some people, it’s their idea of hell.’ 

It’s just as irritating if you can audibly hear sounds playing through someone’s headphones – which can be bad for us, too. ‘If you’re playing the music loud enough for other people to overhear, you’re probably damaging your own hearing quite seriously,’ Rodgers explains. ‘And it’s an ever-increasing problem: more and more people are suffering from noise pollution which is damaging our hearing.’ These rackets could actually be made worse on TfL services. ‘There is no absorption of sound in tube carriages and buses,’ Marincat explains.  

The World Health Organisation backs this up, estimating that more than one billion people are at risk of damaging their hearing from unsafe recreational listening (which is generally anything higher than 90dB). Granted, some of this comes from loud concerts and clubs, but a great deal is also down to personal listening devices (iPhone speakers can generate up to 115dB).

Silencing the noise

Confrontation isn’t an option for most people – although one Londoner told us she once fell into a fury so strong she tripped a man up who was playing music from his phone on the bus. Could there be any way to deal with rogue speaker fiends? 

It might sound a bit OTT, but in some cases, this kind of sound pollution could actually be classed as anti-social behaviour. The Met Police usually defines unruly phone sounds merely as ‘noise nuisance’, AKA ‘any loud or persistent noise that causes you ongoing concern or affects your quality of life.’ However, herein lies a crucial detail: ‘Where the noise is from people being inconsiderate in a public space, this is an exception. You can report this as antisocial behaviour.’ 

@chowmina pls I can hear you through my headphones, darling. #fyp #londoner #tfl ♬ original sound - Yasmina

Meanwhile, a spokesperson from British Transport Police said: ‘It would be very much dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but we would urge anyone who experiences anti-social behaviour to report it to us by texting 61016.’ 

If you don’t feel confident stealthily tripping someone up, or reporting them to the fuzz, you could always turn to good, old fashioned manners and politely ask them to turn the noise down. You might be surprised – not everyone will respond like a petulant toddler. ‘I told someone to turn their music down on the bus and they apologised,’ one Londoner told us. 

While both Marincat and Rodgers believe that better public awareness of the problems that come with phone app noise pollution will be the best way to tackle the issue at a large scale, all of this yammering in our ears doesn’t seem likely to let up any time soon. Mark Evers, Transport for London’s chief customer officer, says: ‘We frequently remind our customers to be considerate of their fellow passengers and be mindful of the impact their behaviour can have on others. This also includes ensuring they are the only ones who can hear their own music or videos.’

There should be a pop-up message on TikTok that reminds users about inclusivity

‘There should be a pop-up message on TikTok that reminds users about inclusivity,’ Marincat says. ‘I think today having a ban on noises above a certain level produced by anything, not just phones, in public spaces, seems highly unlikely.’ 

So, while we can’t physically prohibit the playing of TikTok in public places (although we can dream), not all hope is lost. You could say something like: ‘While I respect your choice to watch every single episode of Sylvanian Drama, I haven’t seen that one yet. No spoilers, please!’ We all ought to be able to enjoy our commutes in peace – and remember, headphones exist for a reason. 

Time Out has reached out to TikTok for comment. 

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