TikTok is Shortening Our Attention Spans

I’ll admit it, I’m a social media addict. I find myself constantly scrolling through my apps in between classes and before I go to bed. I also notice my friends and I referencing current trends on social media and even having in-depth discussions over pictures we see online. Recently, I noticed a family member scrolling through TikTok (an app that was formerly known as Musical.ly until 2016). I stopped and watched as she scrolled through her For You Page, analyzing her actions and I was instantly shocked by how low her attention span was. She couldn’t seem to stay focused for the duration of one video (only 15-60 seconds) without scrolling past it before it was over. 

Unfortunately, this habit is common and not something to be considered as breaking news. I can guarantee all of us are suffering from without realizing the effect it has on our attention spans outside of social media. Watching someone else scroll through TikTok made me fascinated about its unique algorithm. It's also allowed me to be more conscious of my own behaviors engaging with social media as I don’t want it to have a negative effect on how my brain functions. Through research, I’ve learned so much about TikTok’s success and how it keeps us focused on keeping our eyes on the screen but not so much on the content itself. It’s safe to say that it’s harmful for our mental health if we don’t become mindful of how the app works. 

Those of us who’ve scrolled through TikTok know it’s unlike any other social media platform out there. I would describe it as having a wide range of content like Youtube, effects/filters like Snapchat, and having a large comedy community similar to Vine. It’s as if the founders took the best part of all prior existing social media apps and combined it into one. I personally find the algorithm of the For You Page incredibly smart because the user is limited to scrolling in one direction and is forced to decide at a quick pace whether they enjoy the video or not. An article by Forbes titled, “Digital Crack: The Science Behind TikTok’s Success” describes very well how it’s shortening our attention spans. 

Dr. Julie Albright who was interviewed in the Forbes article explains how the format of TikTok affects our brains as “random reinforcement...It means sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s how these platforms are designed ... they’re exactly like a slot machine. Well, the one thing we know is slot machines are addictive. We know there’s a gambling addiction, right?”

According to an article titled “TikTok Revenue and Usage Statistics (2020)” the average time each user spends on the app per day is around 45 minutes. That means people of all ages around the globe are creating a habit of losing patience and focus unintentionally. It’s not just teens who are shortening their attention spans but it’s now adults as well. Albright’s comparison of the app to a slot machine makes perfect sense. We’re all willing to scroll forever and spend large chunks of our day looking for videos that we’ll find entertaining among the millions uploaded on our For You Page. TikTok has turned the social media experience into an addictive game and we don’t even acknowledge it. 

You might be wondering how you can stop the shortening of your attention span from affecting other daily tasks at school or at work. I’ve personally found ways that work well for me to keep my brain functioning productively while being able to experience the fun on TikTok:

  • Turn off all social media notifications

  • Set a timer for your screen time 

  • Put your phone in another room during work

  • Try a one day challenge to stay off social media 

My personal favorite among these tools is staying off of social media for the whole day. It’s a simple act but can honestly be hard for some people. Once I’ve stayed off of social media for a day, it starts getting easier to continue the detox for multiple days. 

All social media platforms can be toxic and addictive but there’s something intriguing about how TikTok created it’s algorithm to make it simply more fun for its users over any other app. I’m curious as to what updates could possibly be added in the future to make it stand out even more than it already is. Always be mindful of how much time you're spending scrolling through videos and be cautious of how it could be affecting your life outside of the screen more than you realized.