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TikTok is killing your brain, one short-form video at a time

Ever heard of the term “TikTok brain”? It is fittingly coined to hint at what the short video platform does to human cognition and overall mental functioning.

Although we still lack comprehensive longitudinal research into the phenomenon, there is piling evidence for the detrimental effects of the app on regular users, especially on the brain development of children and teens who – ironically – happen to the most avid TikTokers.

Here is why TikTok appears to be the worst social media platform of all.

Drastically reduces memory and attention

Binging on an endless stream of 15-to-30-second-long videos slashes our attention span like no other type of media can do: and the fact that regular users spend hours more on average on TikTok compared to more traditional social media platforms only adds up to the problem.

Short-term memory and the ability to concentrate are also affected. Devoted TikTokers report that they are unable to focus on longer video formats anymore (let alone reading a book or doing homework!). 50% of users admit that they find longer videos “stressful”. The platform has indeed introduced longer video formats of up to 10 minutes earlier in 2022 in an attempt to diversify their advertising palette: but marketers are aware that super short videos continue to be the most engaging content type for young audiences. In 2022, the optimal length of TikTok videos is estimated to fall between 21 and 34 seconds.

Other social platforms begin to feel “slow” and boring, compared to this fast-paced app that serves new content at the flick of one’s thumb.

Addictive by design

TikTok’s feed is created addictive by design. Unlike Facebook or Instagram that mostly serve us content from people or brands we already follow, the micro video app revolves around the feature of the endless scroll, pumping out algorithm-based recommendations for entertaining videos by all sorts of unknown “creators”. The content-detection algorithm is purposely developed and constantly refined to match users’ interests and keep them on the platform for as long as possible.

In this sense, TikTok a platform driven by social voyeurism. One study found that user generated content is the most addictive type of content for young people who practically come on the app to binge on the lives of strangers.

TikTok operates on the psychological principle of random reinforcement: the endless video stream is addictive by itself, simply because we expect to get a reward (in the form of a funny video, followed by a shot of dopamine in the brain) any second now. Dopamine spikes happening in quick succession is what makes TikTok similar to gambling: research shows that addiction gradually shrinks the human brain.

This MRI study from 2013 shows that online game addiction leads to structural atrophy in the frontal cortex. Another research from 2018 indicates that visible atrophy takes place in the brains of children aged 9-10 who use smartphones for more than seven hours per day (that may seem like a lot, but recent data shows that the average screen time is on the rise, totalling 4-6 hours for children aged 8-12 and over 8 hours for teenagers since the pandemic started).

Perpetuates boredom

With its entertainment-focused algorithm kept in constant learning mode based on each individual user’s preferences, TikTok has the power to relieve boredom almost instantaneously. This comes at a price though: a decreased ability to keep oneself entertained without the app, followed by an increased dependence on the app. One study found that proneness to boredom in children and adolescents is linked to increased access to technology, which further fuels digital addiction.

Affects reading skills

Our brains digest visual information faster than text. This is why videos will always eclipse text-based information online, while the development of reading skills in children will lag behind their social media activities. Still, TikTok is even more detrimental for the honing of reading habits in younger users than most of the other social media platforms: simply because the platforn does not include text at all.

We are far from dumping the blame on TikTok entirely though: all of the so-called “traditional” social media platforms have started copying the addictive features of the micro video app in order to lure younger audiences with catchy video content. YouTube introduced Shorts, Instagram ramped up their Reels, all aiming to clone the TikTok experience and stay relevant.

Social media is shifting in an attempt to capture our ever-eroding attention with even smaller bits of easy-to-digest content: and it is up to us users to be aware of all the pitfalls.

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