As we mentioned in our last Plugged In Show, social media is changing all the time. Facebook feels just about as old as eight-track players to most kids and teens. They’ve moved on to Snapchat and Discord and, especially, TikTok while moms and dads scramble to keep up.
But maybe kids are getting a little scrambled, too. At least that’s what many researchers are telling us. Indeed, they’re saying that something called TikTok Brain is real.
That’s all well and good, of course. But the term itself might not be familiar to you. What, exactly, is TikTok Brain?
No, TikTok Brain isn’t where girls suddenly develop Tourette’s Syndrome-like tics after watching too many TikTok vids (though as our Adam Holz told us, that’s a thing too). Rather, it’s a more pervasive problem. Experts tell us that there’s an addictive component to watching TikTok vids (and, of course, other, similar short-form stuff on social media). And if we watch short TikTok vids for long stretches of time, that can seriously impact our ability to concentrate on other stuff.
As Julie Jargon writes for The Wall Street Journal: “Remember the good old days when kids just watched YouTube all day? Now that they binge on 15-second TikToks, those YouTube clips seem like PBS documentaries. Many parents tell me their kids can’t sit through feature-length films anymore because to them the movies feel painfully slow. Others have observed their kids struggling to focus on homework. And reading a book? Forget about it.”
In some respects, this isn’t new. We’ve been talking about how the internet and social media can whittle down our ability to concentrate for many years now. But the rise of TikTok coincides with parents’ reporting a decline in the ability of their kids to pay attention to other stuff. And TikTok’s own algorithm does its best to keep users on its platform as long as possible.
The Wall Street Journal found that TikTok feeds its users the same sorts of vids they watch the longest. And while many would say that’s just good business sense, it’s also sort of like giving kids desserts, and only desserts to eat, because they show a preference of cookies to broccoli.
“It is hard to look at increasing trends in media consumption of all types, media multitasking and rates of ADHD in young people and not conclude that there is a decrease in their attention span,” psychiatrist Carl Marci told the Journal.
Many suggest that attention problems such as TikTok Brain actually accelerated due to the COVID-19 epidemic. For more than a year, kids and teens found their normal activities wildly curtailed, they turned to TikTok to pass the time. As TikTok learned more about their viewing habits, it gave them more and more and more of the same—all in bite-sized, sugary nuggets, of course.
TikTok has recently made some changes to push teens to take occasional breaks from the platform: The Wall Street Journal reports that it now encourages users to get a snack or go outside every now and then. So that’s nice, I guess.
Still, TikTok is not a charity. It is literally in the business of keeping users glued to its vids, and its business model has been wildly successful. Parents, as always, are going to need to be the main gatekeepers. As, I think, it should be.
Experts suggest that moms and dads should familiarize themselves with TikTok’s own screen-time management settings. It also has the ability for parents to create an account and link it to the accounts of their children. That Family Pairing option will allow moms and dads to set screen-time limits.
But they also suggest engaging kids in non-screen alternatives. Encourage them to play outside or pick up a sport—or better yet, engage in an outdoor activity with them. Concentrate on finding activities everyone can do as a family, like hiking or bowling or cooking.
The secret to fighting TikTok Brain is, in the end, no secret. It’s just about getting the brain interested in other things.
Funny how shiny new problems so often require age-old solutions, isn’t it?