By Farhin Namira
Everyone has heard about Tiktok. You may love it, hate it, or have used it, but one thing is for sure – it is highly addictive. The app was launched in 2016 and quickly took the world by storm, with millions of people downloading it during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a wide variety of content ranging from comedy sketches and dances to lip-sync videos, it seems like Tiktok is simply an app that provides us with the entertainment we need in our generally mundane lives.
Much less obvious, however, is the silent impact Tiktok has on our brains, which is more harmful than we think. Our generation, Gen Z, is the app’s biggest supporter, with 60% of the users being between the ages of 16 and 24. With so many of us on the app, its seemingly harmless interface should be examined.
Due to the app’s accessibility and ever-changing nature, it comes as no surprise that Tiktok is actively impairing our attention spans. The reason for this is the short-video format and personalized content. The average length of videos on the app is between 21 and 34 seconds, and the algorithm is tailored to each individual’s specific interests, with videos appearing under the ‘For You Page’. This means that users are almost always shown content that’s bound to appeal to them, and it is what leads countless people, especially teenagers, to become immersed in scrolling (“How TikTok Affects the Brain”).
Users currently spend 197.8 million hours per day on Tiktok, with each person allotting about 95 minutes per day, according to the Wall Street Journal (“Tiktok Statistics”). But why is this significant? The fact that teenagers are the primary consumers of the app is particularly concerning given the crucial stage they’re at in terms of brain development.
According to a journal article published in the National Library of Medicine, the brain isn’t fully developed until about the age of 25 and the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control, memory, and attention (Arain et al.)
Tiktok hinders the proper development of this region of the brain because of the endless amounts of stimulation, which makes us impatient and causes us to lose interest in anything that requires time and effort. Furthermore, it’s also impossible for us to refuse the instant gratification that the app provides.
Due to this, we are not able to stay focused on things like homework, which takes a lot longer to complete due to hours spent on Tiktok. Additionally, it causes us to stay up later and interferes with quality sleep, which is crucial for optimal brain functioning and therefore, also has a direct impact on our academic performance.
Ultimately, what’s at stake here is the opportunity for teenagers to develop healthy habits for self-control. Unfortunately, Tiktok has made this task incredibly difficult, with East students agreeing that it has shortened their attention spans.
“It’s lowered the amount of time I can spend on things like schoolwork, and I find myself automatically going onto TikTok when I’m bored and procrastinating,” junior Elizabeth said.
“I find that I can’t sit through a 45-minute TV show anymore without going on my phone,” added junior Jordyn Nestico.
In addition to crippling our attention spans, Tiktok has been shown to negatively impact our social lives, which consequently takes a toll on our mental health. As with any social media, excessive use can be detrimental when it comes to real, human interaction. With an app like Tiktok, which allows us to virtually connect with millions of people and make new friendships, it can cause us to neglect the connections we’ve built, in person. Since we’re spending so much time on the app, hoping to pass time, we leave little room for actually hanging out with friends.
Of course, teenagers who are on the app may argue the opposite – that Tiktok allows them to feel better connected with their friends. On the one hand, they are right because the app allows people to communicate whenever and wherever. However, evidence shows that this surface-level communication is counterproductive, especially when it substitutes real-life social interaction.
People who are chronically deprived of meaningful interactions are more inclined to have increased levels of stress, anxiety, and inflammation, which can have a domino effect in nearly every body system, including the brain.
A 2010 report by sociology researchers at UT Austin revealed that social interaction was directly linked to enhanced health, including higher self-esteem and empathy, and lower levels of anxiety and depression. The emphasis is that although we live in a digital age, this matters because it can improve every aspect of our health, including our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Of all of the problems associated with Tiktok, the most prevalent is the app’s addictive nature. Every time you go on the app, you’re met with a myriad of videos that provide an endless stream of entertainment. Due to this, our brains release dopamine and associate TikTok with a reward, making it more likely that we’ll go on it again. This is far from unintentional.
In an interview conducted with Forbes Magazine, Dr. Julie Albright describes Tiktok as putting us, “…in this pleasurable dopamine state, carried away.” She also adds that since the information is presented in such an eye-catching manner, it makes us treat the app much like a slot machine, in which we scroll until we find something we like.
Allison Ludwig, a junior at East acknowledges how easy it is to lose track of time on the app by mentioning, “I know at one point I’d spend six hours a day on Tiktok before I set a time limit. I was surprised at how fast the time went.”
TikTok’s reach becomes even more clear when comparing the life of an active user of social media and the life of someone who has no social media at all. When asked why he has no social media, junior Tyler Delisanti expressed that he doesn’t “have it because it takes away time from things such as homework, studying for tests, and working out.” He also noted benefits which include lower screen time and being more inclined to connect with people instead of being on his phone.
Despite several studies showing the negative effects of TikTok on our brains, deleting the app seems like an ineffective solution.
For most teens, it is a fun way to pass time and escape the stress of everyday life. What we don’t realize, however, is that it can be a contributing factor to a majority of said stress. This includes more time spent on homework due to hours of procrastination, reduced sleep, and social interaction, as well as a lack of self-control.
You don’t have to go as far as deleting the app, but recognizing that excess time spent can have consequences on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being is important. By being mindful of the content we’re consuming, and setting up app limits to control our usage with “Downtime” (a feature found on most smartphones), we can learn to control ourselves and prevent our brains from being in constant overdrive – making it much easier to live healthy, productive lives.