Due to the rapid development of technology in recent years, our world has been changing drastically. While there have been positive advances that have come with the innovation of technology, there have also been notable downsides. A growing concern amongst researchers is the effect of social media, specifically short-form content, on our ability to stay focused for a long period of time, with many in the scientific community saying that it has diminished our attention span. 

In March 2020, when the world shut down, millions of people turned to the social media app TikTok as a source of escape from the grim reality that came with the COVID-19 virus, and to find solidarity through comedy. Following the vast success of TikTok’s short-form content, other platforms like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts followed closely behind. 

Although TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform, most of us remember the short-lived but extreme fame that came with the video platform Vine, where creators had six seconds or less to be funny. It appears that the world has a fixation on platforms that prioritize short-form content, and the reason behind that is that these apps were created to hold our attention!

Managing a TikTok addiction

While I love TikTok as much as the next person and unashamedly can admit to having wasted hours, and possibly days, of my life on it, one must wonder about the effects this mindless scrolling has on our attention span. In a 2021 study, the researchers found that a reason that young people turn to social media platforms is to relieve ‘perceived stress.’ According to the study, although these applications do relieve stress momentarily, the problem arises when individuals remain on them for too long, forming what is known in the study as a ‘Short-Form Video Application Addiction.’ 

The addictive nature of TikTok is nothing new, but the algorithm based on content and watch times, creating TikTok’s ‘For You page,’ is what sets it apart from other comparable apps. Short-form video apps operate on a principle known as random reinforcement, where even if the video you’re watching isn’t entertaining, the belief that the next one might be keeps you scrolling. Like gambling, the idea of holding on for the next ‘win’ — or entertaining video — gives way to addiction.  

Norman Farb, a psychology professor at UTM, focuses his research on mindfulness training to focus attention on the present. In an interview with The Varsity, he emphasized the need to have healthy constraints around how we use social media, and to be mindful of the ways we minimize stress. Although people tend to go to social media to ease their stress, you might want to evaluate other areas of your life that might be causing stress, and tackle the issue from the root, rather than masking it with a momentary distraction. 

Farb mentioned that it can be helpful to set aside an evening in the week to take time off social media and see how it affects you emotionally. Maybe taking a walk or catching up with people you haven’t spoken to in some time could be a way to occupy yourself. He goes on to say that we have control over “what do I want to pay attention to? What do I want to spend time on?” And taking control in these situations requires setting goals and boundaries. 

Research has shown that short-form content can hold our attention for so long because the low cognitive load allows us to easily say: “just one more video.” Because of our inability to say no when it comes to mindless scrolling, Farb suggests setting reasonable timers ahead of going on these platforms, so you don’t wait till you’ve spent hours taking a break. Farb explained, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” So you need to take a stand concerning what holds your attention. 

The attention span

In an interview with BBC, Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at The Open University, said that the idea of an ‘average attention span’ is pretty meaningless, and that our attention span is task dependent. A UTSC professor of psychology, Steve Joordens, has a similar perspective on the topic. He argues that “something as fundamental to us as our attention span, [does not change] from generation to generation.” 

What’s different in the newer generations is that we are raised in what Joordens describes as an “ultra-distractible” world. Instead, he suggests that what’s important in the discourse on social media and attention is social connection. His research in dealing with stress in healthy ways has shown that oxytocin, colloquially known as the love or trust hormone, is released when we are vulnerable to others. Actions like laughing, smiling, dancing, and singing with others can not only stop the stress hormone cortisol from being released, but they can also release good hormones like oxytocin! 

For those of you that have made it this far into the article, I congratulate you and your intact “attention span.” Overall, there are varying opinions and beliefs on the effect of short-form content on our attention span and well-being in general, but the overarching theme seems to be the idea of being intentional with our time. To quote Joordens, “Am I in control of the things that happen? Or is the environment [in control] and I’m just a victim of it?” 

It’s important to take control of our social media usage and make a conscious choice on how we want to attend to it. Rather than denying yourself social media for a day, consider choosing to spend quality time with someone you love. Be intentional about how you choose to use your time. if you’re going to spend it online, follow people that lighten your mood, rather than those that do the opposite. 

Stress seems to be the underlying factor when it comes to social media addictions, so it is important to find healthy ways to curb anxiety. However, stress isn’t always distress. It can simply be our body’s way of telling us that we’re missing something fundamental, like social connection or fresh air. 

Check in with yourself. Have you spent time with your loved ones lately? Have you been getting enough sleep? If after asking yourself these questions and examining your use of social media you find that it is a medium that relieves stress for you, or it’s a healthy escape from reality, then happy scrolling!