Has TikTok Made Our Attention Spans Shorter?

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TikTok app loading on iphone

During lockdown, TikTok has become one of the most popular apps. If you’re unsure what TikTok is, here is a quick run down of all you need to know:

A TikTok is a short video, usually between 15-60 seconds – it can be about pretty much anything (within TikTok’s guidelines). There are new trends on TikTok everyday – these can be found via hashtags on the Explore page. TikTok also has a For You Page (FYP), which consists of videos related to ones you have watched, liked and interacted with. For example, if you love Harry Styles and you like/comment on those TikToks, you are likely to see more videos of Harry.

Before TikTok was created, there were discussions about whether social media can have a negative lasting impact on our attention spans. Many articles suggested that although there is no scientific evidence that apps like Instagram and Facebook can have an impact on our attention spans, it is likely that the 24/7 news coverage and access to any content does something to our brains.

Particularly during lockdown, many found that their time spent on their phone or laptop increased. During this time TikTok grew and the number of users increased vastly every day. Although social media apps have similar functions and abilities, TikTok is different.

TikTok allows users to create and watch an unlimited stream of new content, watch trends come and go daily and find something new with just a swipe. The FYP keeps user’s attention by creating a constant sense of curiosity about what is to come next. As the videos themselves are extremely short, the user can decide whether they want to stay watching or quickly move onto something more interesting.

A study from Technical University of Denmark found that the constant stream of information can narrow our collective attention span overtime. They 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 constant need for faster information, new content and exciting daily trends is only continuing to grow.

I used to watch YouTube videos and vlogs, ranging from anything in between 10-30-minute videos. After spending more time on TikTok I noticed that when I tried to watch a long YouTube video, my interest disappeared in a matter of minutes. I could feel my patience running thin even though I was genuinely interested in the video.

After speaking to several others about how they spend their time on and after TikTok, it seems that I’m not alone. Sehri, 21, from Glasgow remarked how “I think TikTok is definitely making my attention span shorter. Before using TikTok I used to sit through a 20-minute YouTube video, paying full attention, but now a video really needs to capture my attention for me to watch it.”

The effortless stream of fast content on TikTok can rub off onto how we consume other types of videos and content. Dani, 23, from Berkshire said “I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to videos on double speed. I used to do it with my lecture podcasts, but now it feels like more of a necessity as I get bored otherwise,”

“If I watch a music video on regular speed, I find myself wishing it would be over faster even though I enjoy the song.”

Although TikTok is a relatively new app that is still growing in population, the phenomenon isn’t new. Vine was similar to TikTok, with users able to create content and react to memes and trends. But TikTok does have a unique system with the FYP, unlike Vine which only allowed users to watch videos by those they follow. Dani explained that “The For You Page isn’t just quick entertainment from creators you follow, it’s a constant stream of novel entertainment based on what you enjoy.”

The FYP allows us to easily discover more of what we enjoy, by calculating our likes, comments and how long we spend watching each video. With an increase in content available, we are exhausting our attention and “our urge for ‘newness’ which causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly” said postdoc Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

TikTok places that urge for newness and short videos together perfectly to allow us to consume bite sized pieces of information. Hollie, 24, a freelance journalist from Hounslow commented on how “After using TikTok I would definitely question watching a YouTube video that was over 10-15 minutes, unless it was something I was really interested in,”

“We have an expectation now that we should be given information we need in a matter of seconds, and anything longer than that isn’t worth our time.”

“I think YouTubers need to keep up with this growing need for fast, superficial entertainment because if they don’t their content will suffer. One YouTuber who understands this the most is David Dobrik, he creates four minute 20 second vlogs of funny and digestible content – he knows that he can hold viewers for that entire time.”

One popular trend that replaces the classic YouTube tea/drama videos are called TikTok storytime. These are usually funny, awkward or relatable stories that are told in 60 seconds or less.

Similar to these are travel vlogs on TikTok, which often show someone going on holiday or traveling somewhere for a short break. These are satisfying to watch as they make the viewer feel like they’re on that journey with the creator, especially since many feature stages of their holiday, e.g. the airport, arriving at the hotel etc. These videos will definitely make you want to jet away somewhere after watching.

These replacement vlogs suggest that users are not looking for details, they want a quick overview of information that’s entertaining and videos that don’t require any more attention than is really needed.

Myra Ali, 23 from London highlights that whilst TikTok has sparked creativity, it can also have long term effects. “People on TikTok are bold and creative which is entertaining, but I think just sitting and listening to someone for a few minutes will become a struggle after using this app. We want to be constantly entertained with new material which is an issue because people get bored so quickly.”

Although there is no specific scientific evidence that supports whether TikTok has made our attention spans even shorter, there are certainly relevant studies, articles and opinions that suggest it has.

Words by Chloe Martin


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