It’s common knowledge that this digital age has brought with it a newfound set of challenges to navigate. Given that social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube are now pillars in the lives of billions, the quantity of information we have access to at any given moment is astounding. However, unlike the increase in the amount of content we absorb, our cognitive function seems to be going in the opposite direction.
At any given moment we now take in five times more information than we did in 1986. Although this might seem to offer an opportunity for productivity, scientific research dictates that since 2000 the average person’s attention span has diminished from 12 seconds to a mere 8. This places a human’s concentration level below that of a goldfish, which is able to maintain focus for 9 seconds total.
It’s undeniable that social media provides critical interaction opportunities — its plethora of positives exemplified no better than by the networking it facilitated during the pandemic. Despite this, its downsides are simply inescapable.
With the recent exponential surge in short-form video content coinciding with the growing number of young social media users, the reality is that social media is beginning to have a legitimate, tangible impact on children’s cognitive development.
So why is this? At the age of 10, a child’s brain enters an intrinsic developmental stage that causes them to attribute increased value to social appreciation. Receptors for “happy hormones” start to multiply, and attention, compliments, and external approval from friends and family begin to feel that much more rewarding.
At the same time, we give many of them access to technology and social media; a portal into a world where social admiration is quite literally the currency.
The act of using social media thus quickly becomes tethered to their brain’s reward centres — after all, nowhere else can you instantly receive (or, perhaps, not receive) follows, likes, comments, and veneration from hundreds if not thousands of people.
“The drive for approval [in youth] has historically helped kids and teens develop healthy social skills and connections. But arriving at school in a new pair of designer jeans, hoping your crush will smile at you in the hallway, is worlds away from posting a video on TikTok that may get thousands of views and likes,” says APA scientist Mike Pristein.
At a time when children are developing their sense of self, the brain is being conditioned to base this on feedback from peers. A child’s emotional responses are not yet regulated, and rushes of oxytocin and dopamine from social media fundamentally alter the way their brain measures self-value. This is precisely why reports have found that younger social media users are more likely to suffer from body image issues. It’s also why we are seeing a steep incline in addiction-like behaviours in children, with short-form video platforms like TikTok being most responsible for this.
“There is no question that TikTok affects the brain, and children’s brains are still developing into their early to mid-20s,” outlines Jessica Griffin, Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts.
“Short videos, like candy, provide a rush of dopamine, a feel-good chemical […] that often leaves you wanting more — like kids in a candy store,” she continues.
When a child becomes accustomed to these repetitive dopamine hits, it becomes increasingly challenging for them to stop using the app. Research has even shown the brain chemistry and neurological patterning of people with a technology addiction to be very similar to those with an alcohol or drug addiction.
TikTok recently extended its maximum video length from 3 to 10 minutes, however, its most popular format is the signature short video, some lasting only seconds. The consequence of consuming such content for hours each day? Oversaturation of the brain with varying emotions in a short time frame, thus conditioning it to expect constant stimulus. Within the space of 2 minutes, you might scroll from a heart-warming video of a newborn baby, to a sad clip of a soldier saying goodbye to his family, back to a funny meme, and then onto a teary video of someone mourning the loss of their pet.
It is neither normal nor healthy for a developing brain to become habituated to such rapidly fluctuating emotions and dopamine hits. It starts to expect a reward with little to no effort involved, which, in turn, detrimentally stunts the child’s attention span. A troubling article by The Wall Street Journal revealed exactly this. Some parents report their social-media-obsessed kids being unable to sit through long films, as they “progress painfully slow.” Others complain their children cannot focus on reading, homework, or slower-moving activities for extended periods of time.
This exposes an insidious pattern of which even TikTok users have become self-aware. It has become popular on the app for creators to merge two videos into one, including a second clip underneath the main content to keep a viewer’s attention. A creator telling a funny story or a clip from a TED Talk, for example, will occupy one half of the screen, whilst the other shows a timelapse of someone baking, or playing a video game, for the viewer to watch whilst listening to the first video.
It seems to be common knowledge that short-form social media content is now having to work even harder to hold young people’s attention, before they scroll away deeper into the abyss. Some TikTokers even make a point of this by creating “attention-span challenges”, encouraging their viewers to sit for 60 seconds in silence without leaving the video.
Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calls today’s digital landscape “a perfect storm of cognitive degradation.” And whilst this issue is not solely exclusive to Gen Z — dwindling attention spans due to technology are seen among older generations too — Gen Z is the first social corpus to have grown up with an incessant stream of electronics and social media as a routine part of their childhood.
The fact that society’s collective cognitive function is taking this path is no shock to anyone. Studies as far back as 2008 revealed that adults over 55 who grew up watching black-and-white television were more likely to dream in black and white. Furthermore, countless other experiments link the overuse of social media and technology to anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, poor emotional processing, irregular sleep cycles, reduced memory, impulsiveness, distractibility, disorganization — the list goes on.
There is more than enough evidence to show the extent of the impact that media has on the mind. It is perhaps simply more a question of how long before we reach the point of no return, and finally begin to listen.
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