'TikTok brain' may be coming for your kid's attention span

What happens to kids' brains when they binge TikTok's endless stream of bite-sized videos?

A brain sits in space with colored flowing lines around
Could binging TikTok videos make it harder to pay attention?
(Image credit: Jonathan Kitchen / Getty Images)

TikTok's mind-boggling popularity has led to growing interest in how the social media platform impacts the brain, especially in the kids and teens who populate the app. In addition to concerns about its effects on mental health, some early studies suggest it could be changing their attention spans. The platform hosts an endless stream of bite-size videos, delivering entertaining content in as little as 15 seconds. Young people who binge-watch short-form content like TikTok or Instagram Reels find it harder "to participate in activities that don't offer instant gratification," Julie Jargon wrote in The Wall Street Journal, an effect she called "TikTok brain."

What happens to our brains when we get hooked on short-form videos?

The pursuit of a reaction in the reward system in your brain drives endless scrolling through TikTok videos. The platform is a "dopamine machine," John Hutton, a pediatrician and director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, told Jargon. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that the brain releases when it's expecting a reward. "A flood of dopamine reinforces cravings for something enjoyable, whether it's a tasty meal, a drug or a funny TikTok video," Jargon explained in the Journal.

Dopamine produces feelings of pleasure and motivates you to seek more. "When you scroll and hit upon something that makes you laugh, your brain receives a hit of dopamine," neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez told Bustle. "When you see something you don't like, you can quickly pivot to something that produces more dopamine," she explains. Repeating this cycle could eventually train your brain to crave the rewards you get from shorter content.

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Research into how TikTok, specifically, affects the brain is in the early stages, but there has been a growing interest among scientists in that area. Findings from a study published earlier this month by Guizhou University of Finance and Economics in China and Western Michigan University suggest that videos on TikTok and similarly succinct YouTube Shorts engage users through "short bursts of thrills," which can lead to the development of addictive behavior. That study focused on a sample of college students and their motivations for excessively using short-form video apps.

Two years ago, the Science Times cited another study published in Nature Communication in 2019 that suggested that our "collective attention span" appeared to be narrowing due to how quickly people consumed content on social media. While the study did not "explicitly talk about TikTok," the Science Times said it was "a relevant study that suggests the app has genuinely affected people's brains."

Why are children's attention spans particularly at risk?

When young people do activities that require "prolonged focus," like reading, they use something called "directed attention," a function that begins in the prefrontal cortex, "the part of the brain responsible for decision making and impulse control," the Journal reported.

"Directed attention is the ability to inhibit distractions and sustain attention and to shift attention appropriately," Michael Manos, the clinical director of the Center for Attention and Learning at Cleveland Clinic Children's, explained to the outlet. "It requires higher-order skills like planning and prioritizing." Kids generally have difficulty using directed attention because the prefrontal cortex doesn't fully develop until age 25. TikTok's constantly changing environments don't require that level of sustained attention. "If kids' brains become accustomed to constant changes, the brain finds it difficult to adapt to a nondigital activity where things don't move quite as fast," Manos said.

Gloria Mark, the author of "Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity," told Wired that young people experience "a cultural indoctrination" that encourages them to "grow used to and even prefer these kinds of highly stimulating fast scene shifts." As a result, it's getting harder for them to pay attention to things that don't offer instant gratification. "There are so many forces banding together that are just reinforcing people, especially young people, to have short attention spans," Mark added.

Are social media companies trying to address the issue?

Regarding younger users, some social media companies have tried to implement features to limit their potential to overuse the apps. TikTok has already made changes to help teens manage their time scrolling through videos. The platform does not allow push notifications after 9 pm for users ages 13 to 15. The platform also periodically creates videos to remind users to pause their scrolling, go outside, or have a snack.

While YouTube videos are usually longer, the platform introduced a feature called YouTube Shorts with content that maxes out at 60 seconds. Google, which owns Youtube, already has features to limit use for people under 18, such as turning off autoplay for kids and teens. Reminders to take a break or go to sleep are also on by default for users aged 13 to 17. YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi told the Journal that while research on how short-form content affects young people is just beginning, the company is closely monitoring the outcomes. Youtube will continue to "refine the Shorts experience to better meet the needs of young people and their families," Choi said, "including by partnering with third-party experts to inform our work."

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Theara Coleman

Theara Coleman is a Staff Writer for The Week. A New York native, she previously served as a contributing writer and assistant editor for Honeysuckle Magazine, where she covered racial politics and cannabis industry news. Theara graduated from Howard University and New York University, receiving her BA and MA in English Literature, respectively. She has a background in education as a former High School English teacher. She brings her passion for reading, writing, and all things nerdy to her work as a journalist.