As fast-paced, ever-changing content takes the world by storm, a war against attention is being waged. It is safe to say that the internet and social media is a rudimentary part of life for the young generations today. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded the average screen time for individuals aged 8-18 in 2018, to be a staggering 7.5 hours. It is suspected that the number has increased due to the pandemic-related migrations to e-learning from the last two and a half years. One of the prevalent pastimes for kids, preteens, and teens is consuming media on social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. These platforms provide the consumer with a myriad of content while presenting them with content related to their niche. These platforms decipher this niche by analyzing what categories of content the consumer spends the most time watching and/or gives more likes to. Although the system works very well in supplying their users with enjoyable content, there is an underlying deplorability to their design, which is affecting the young generations heavily.
Why do we enjoy activities like scrolling on social media or reading a book or shopping? Stephanie Watson wrote on Harvard Women’s Health Watch that the release of dopamine from our brains is what makes activities feel rewarding. This neurotransmitter can provide an intense feeling of reward. It is a key factor when building habits, as it is the greatest promoter of reinforcement; dopamine is what makes us want to do an activity repeatedly. Healthline.com states, “While dopamine isn’t the sole cause of addiction, its motivational properties are thought to play a role in addiction.” This is where social media platforms excel, especially the infamous TikTok.
TikTok began its rapid rise to the top ranks of social media (in number of users and watch time) in 2018. What was the technology that brought the platform such immense success? An algorithm of short and undemanding (easy to watch and easy to create) videos synced to music, with a system in place to scroll through videos at a rate never seen before. Each of these videos triggers the release of dopamine in the consumer’s brain, more so if it was a video they particularly liked. The users of the app become hooked with the anticipation that the succeeding video will serve them their next dopamine spike.
A 2021 study on TikTok’s specific neurological effects examined how Douyin, China’s TikTok equivalent, affects Chinese college students’ brains. Brain scans of students who used the app regularly revealed addiction-like responses, and some research subjects lacked enough self-control to stop watching. Some users of TikTok even reported that they used to watch a 10-30 minute video in the past but have now found themselves losing interest in a matter of a few minutes. They could feel their patience running out despite being genuinely interested in the video. Our brain adapts to the environment around us. As the standard for dopamine rises in our brain, the more we lose attention and zeal for activities that produce less dopamine in more time, like studying or reading. People become dependent on high (easy) dopamine lives due to the app, and they struggle without that life. This is especially true to people under the age of 25, as “the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain in which attention, impulse inhibition, prospective memory, and cognitive flexibility are modulated—is not fully developed until about the age of 25” Mira Miller wrote on verywellhealth.com.
A recent study from Microsoft revealed that the average attention span has decreased 25 percent in 15 years. Without the ability to focus, can teenagers healthily mature? It is imperative that this imbalance of attention be rectified. I wish that whoever uses social media, be mindful of the time you spend and how it is being spent. If we incorporate a more deliberate, less-dopamine releasing activity, for example, reading, in our daily lives, the average attention span would increase and I’m sure the war against attention would end apace.
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