Social Media

Why You Shouldn’t Worry About TikTok Destroying Your Attention Span

What really happens in your brain when you spend hours on your For You page.

A TikToker describes putting on different forms of media to stimulate her attention span.
Screenshot via TikTok

TikTok is the place to go for sea shanties and oddly complicated dance-alongs — but if you've been spending hours on it a day, you might find that you suddenly can't remember when you read a real book, or watched a show on Netflix without scrolling through your phone at the same time. With videos so short they max out at a minute, can TikTok mess with your attention span?

Researchers know that the brain is plastic; in other words, it changes over time, rewiring and creating new connections. So the idea of lots of quick videos "training" your brain to respond shorter and shorter content isn't that far-fetched. But experts tell Bustle that TikToks are actually safer than they seem.

For one thing, it's tricky to measure attention span, aka roughly how long you can pay attention to one thing or task, without getting distracted; on average, it's around 20 to 30 minutes. A study published in Nature Communications in 2019 found that in general, our collective attention spans do seem to be narrowing, thanks to how fast everybody consumes information on social media. Trends rise and disappear rapidly, and the main character on Twitter one afternoon may be forgotten an hour later. But that's the big picture; your own brain is harder to figure out.

When you scroll through TikTok, neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez Psy.D. tells Bustle, you're actually in pursuit of dopamine. "When you scroll and hit upon something that makes you laugh, your brain receives a hit of dopamine," she explains. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain's reward system, and it produces feelings of pleasure — and motivates you to find another hit. "When you see something you don't like, you can quickly pivot to something that produces more dopamine," Dr. Hafeez says.

Dopamine does play a role in attention. Research from 2016 in Current Biology shows that when people get a dopamine boost from something, they're more likely to pay attention to similar things in the future. Like Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter, Dr. Hafeez explains, TikTok isn't designed to foster long attention spans. But she notes that the adult brain is less susceptible to changes in its attention span than adolescent brains, so hours of TikToks might not change how you focus long-term.

Attention involves a bunch of brain regions, including ones that control decision-making and rewards, and researchers are still figuring out how social media might affect them. A study from MIT published in PNAS in 2020 found that maintaining attention in the brain requires two things: dismissing all the other stimuli, and dampening your impulses to do something else (like switch the channel). And a 2020 study in Nature Scientific Reports discovered that people who use a lot of social media show signs of extra impulsivity — in other words, they click away on a whim.

Research on social media and the brain has mostly focused on multitasking — paying attention to TikTok, Insta, and your Twitter feed all at once. The science there doesn't look great; a study in World Psychiatry in 2019, for example, found that people who multitask across social media tend not to do well at tasks that require them to filter out distractions. And a survey conducted by Canadian researchers for Microsoft found that people tend to lose interest in what they're watching after around 8 seconds, if it's not sufficiently diverting.

But there's no real evidence that TikTok, specifically, will have any long-term effects on your attention span. A review of the available science in Yale Journal Of Biology & Medicine in 2019 found that the relationship between technologies and attention spans is inconclusive; the one thing research does say is that multitasking often overwhelms your brain's attention centers.

Jill Daino LCSW, a therapist with Talkspace, tells Bustle that the COVID-19 pandemic may also have had a negative effect on your attention. "It is not that we don't have the ability to concentrate on longer things; it is that right now we may not have the bandwidth, given that we are stretched so thin in all areas of our lives," she says.

If you feel you're switching off more rapidly than you used to, Dr. Hafeez recommends using meditation, reading books, doing crossword puzzles, or watching movies to train yourself into enjoying long-term attention. And try not to be hard on yourself if you just can't seem to handle Lord Of The Rings marathons right now. "It is crucial to remember that we are all doing our best to navigate the challenging circumstances of the past year," Daino says. Put that box set away for another time.

Experts:

Dr. Sanam Hafeez

Studies cited:

Anderson, B. A., Kuwabara, H., Wong, D. F., Gean, E. G., Rahmim, A., Brašić, J. R., George, N., Frolov, B., Courtney, S. M., & Yantis, S. (2016). The Role of Dopamine in Value-Based Attentional Orienting. Current biology : CB, 26(4), 550–555. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.062

Bari, A., Xu, S., Pignatelli, M., Takeuchi, D., Feng, J., Li, Y., & Tonegawa, S. (2020). Differential attentional control mechanisms by two distinct noradrenergic coeruleo-frontal cortical pathways. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(46), 29080–29089. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2015635117

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Lodge, J. M., & Harrison, W. J. (2019). The Role of Attention in Learning in the Digital Age. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 92(1), 21–28.

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Wegmann, E., Müller, S.M., Turel, O. et al. Interactions of impulsivity, general executive functions, and specific inhibitory control explain symptoms of social-networks-use disorder: An experimental study. Sci Rep10, 3866 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-60819-4