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TikTok Goes Our Attention Spans


TikTok has gained 1 billion users in three years, half the time it took Instagram, a notable competitor. As of 2019, the app is available in 154 countries (2021), as well as 75 languages. The appgrowth has been exponential and is a movement towards the future of social media. 




John Koetsier has summarised the experience of the app perfectly: ‘An hour later I resurfaced, shook my head and wondered where my afternoon had gone’. Tiktok, by title, is an onomatopoeic ticking of a clock. Ironically, this is exactly what the experience of using the app is like. So why is it so addictive, and does this link to our attention spans?  


The answer, according to Dr Julie Albright (USC professor and author), is in differentiation. Engrossed in the app, we keep scrolling because we see likeable videosinterlaced with dislikable contentThis, when we think about it, sounds alarmingly similar to a slot machine. Seeing a post we like releases dopamine, which is ultimately randomised and unpredictable. As a result, we keep scrolling, hoping for another fix: ‘You’ll just be in this pleasurable dopamine state, carried away. It’s almost hypnotic, you’ll keep watching and watching’ (Dr Julie Albright). The more hours lost on TikTok, the higher the monetary benefits are for the platform. Average Minutes Per User data displays how TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the platform. A new study is even more concerning, showing how young people (aged 4-15) spend an average of 80 minutes per day on the app. This is, ultimately, the age group of a future generation. 


This seems (relatively) harmless until we consider the impact it is having on our attention spans. Other apps like Vine (2012) created the foundations for TikTok, but the unique system of the For You Page (randomised content based on your interests instead of videos by followers) is new. It teaches us that content can be handed to us with a pay-off no longer than 60 seconds. User experience alludes to how this makes a 15-minute YouTube video difficult, gruelling and unrewarding.  


Patience, taught from birth, is a virtue. Often the most rewarding experiences come to those who wait, a lesson opposed by TikTok. In terms of content creation, this has serious implications for media consumption in the future. Increasingly, the expectation is that the consumer has a right to receive information in a matter of seconds. Anything else risks losing interest. David Dobrik is an example of a YouTuber able to capitalise on short, 4 minutes 20-second videos. The media may soon have to follow this trend. 


A study from the Technical University of Denmark found that the constant stream of information on TikTok can narrow our attention span over timeThis study also found that the peak of trends and hashtags is decreasing dramatically over the years: “When looking into the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, in 2013 a hashtag stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours. This gradually decreases to 11.9 hours in 2016”. This is a trend seen in video content too. 


TikTok, however, does have benefits. Namely, it increases connectivity and encourages communities to form. Niches are being createdwhich have  a profound impact on independent artists. What needs to be encouraged is finding time to disconnect and focus, and understanding the virtue of patience. Social media alone is not an enemy, but TikTok is designed to be addictive. In high quantities, the way it alters our attention span is concerning. We have been presented with a challenge, now (ironically) we have to patiently find a solution. 



TikTok Goes Our Attention Spans Reviewed by Joe Bray on Saturday, August 07, 2021 Rating: 5
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