TikTok is one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. It has over 1.6 billion registered users from across the globe with about 1.1 billion active users. Usage time varies but an average user spends around 30 minutes to 50 minutes on the platform. It is also a popular source of entertainment among children and teenagers. However, behind its global popularity, experts have warned about the myriad of mental health issues that can arise from its overuse. One of which is a condition called TikTok Brain that is alleged to affect young users.
Understanding TikTok Brain: How the Short-Form Video-Sharing Platform Damages the Brain of Young People
What makes TikTok an appealing social media platform is its focus on short-form videos. It is specifically a video-sharing platform that hosts user-generated bite-sized videos that can be as short as 15 seconds. Users can create and share videos up to 180 seconds long but the more popular ones are often under 60 seconds. These videos can be entertaining and informative. Most are also attention-grabbing. Short-from videos are easier to digest. This means that users can be exposed to a greater number of contents in a shorter span.
There are downsides to short-form videos and short-form content in general. They can be hard to resist. Consuming them can be a waste of time. Some users would not even be aware that they are mindlessly watching one video after another while scrolling through their TikTok feed. This phenomenon is a combination of binge-watching and doom-scrolling. It can lead to problems such as decreased productivity, social isolation, inattentiveness, and sleeping issues.
A combination of the aforementioned problems can either lead to or be a manifestation of a condition called TikTok Brain. It is not an official medical diagnosis but it is an emerging cognitive health issue that has piqued the interest of researchers because of its prevalence among young people who are avid users of TikTok and other similar short-form video-sharing platforms. The condition is also a rehashed term that represents how social media platforms can lead to addictive behavior and result in poor attention spans.
Julie Jargon, a family and tech columnist, introduced the term “TikTok Brain” in her column published in The Wall Street Journal. She explained that this condition is characterized by the inability of young people hooked on TikTok and other similar platforms to participate in activities that do not provide instant gratification. Quoting John Hutton, a pediatrician and director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, her column described short-form video-sharing platforms as dopamine machines.
The columnist explained further that consuming short-form videos flood the brain with dopamine. This neurotransmitter produces feelings of pleasure and motivates a particular individual to consume something that provides that same source of pleasure. Hence, in other words, the release of dopamine prompts a user to watch more short-form videos to sustain his or her pleasurable experience. This creates a cycle that could train the brain to crave more content to watch. This is somewhat similar to an addictive behavior.
Addiction to TikTok is one of the characteristics of TikTok Brain. It is important to underscore the fact that the causal neurobiological phenomenon is similar to addiction to psychoactive drugs to a certain extent but is more similar to gambling addiction or sugar addiction. Addiction to this platform or to short-form videos is also similar to different addictive behaviors emerging from the overuse of multimedia and other digital products like mobile phones, instant messaging, video games, other social media platforms, and pornography.
Users with TikTok Brain have also been described as having a shorter-than-average attention span. Take note that this is prominent among children and teenagers whose developing brains have been exposed and grown accustomed to highly-stimulating and rapid-firing content. Michael Manos, the clinical director of the Center for Attention and Learning at Cleveland Clinic, explained to Jargon that the changing user interface of TikTok does not require sustained attention and it accustoms the brain to constant changes.
The body of research exploring how TikTok affects the brain of young people or how it leads to the condition called TikTok Brain is in its initial stages. There are still relevant studies that document, explain, and explore causal links and evidence. Researchers Y. Quin, B. Omar, and A. Musetti collected responses from Chinese respondents aged between 10 and 19 years old. Findings suggest that the system quality of TikTok creates a flow experience that has direct and indirect effects on the addictive nature of the platform.
Researcher T. Smith and A. Short conducted a comparison of TikTok and Facebook problematic use measures based on a sample of university students. It revealed that “withdrawal” and “relapse” had the highest predictive power in the diagnosis of addiction among the respondents. The study also showed that the underlying addiction pathways are similar between platforms but differ in maladaptive behavior manifestation and usage intensity drivers.
Earlier studies have also explored the impact of overstimulation on the attention span of children. A. S. Lillard and J. Peterson concluded in their 2011 paper that nine minutes of watching SpongeBob temporarily rendered 4-year-old children incapable of performing well in tests of attention and cognition as compared to those who spent the same amount of time drawing or those who watched less action-packed programs. The result has been theoretically linked to the idea that the brain is not hardwired for high levels of stimulation.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Jargon, J. 2023. “This Was Supposed to be the Antidote for TikTok Brain. It’s Just as Bad.” The Wall Street Journal. Available online
- Jargon, J. 2022. “TikTok Brain Explained: Why Some Kids Seem Hooked on Social Video Feeds.” The Wall Street Journal. Available online
- Lillard, A. S. and Peterson, J. 2011. “The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function.” Pediatrics. 128(4): 644-649. DOI: 1542/peds.2010-1919
- Smith, T. and Short, A. 2022. “Needs Affordance as a Key Factor in Likelihood of Problematic Social Media Use: Validation, Latent Profile Analysis and Comparison of TikTok and Facebook Problematic Use Measures.” Addictive Behaviors. 129: 107259. DOI: 1016/j.addbeh.2022.107259
- Qin, Y., Omar, B., and Musetti, A. 2022. “The Addiction Behavior of Short-Form Video App TikTok: The Information Quality and System Quality Perspective.” Frontiers in Psychology. 13. DOI: 3389/fpsyg.2022.932805