Pay Attention to This!

In a world where attention spans are shortening due to daily social media use, how can we begin to regain focus and become more mindful?

5 min readNov 26, 2022

Recently, I’ve discovered a mysterious change in my study habits: I’m no longer able to concentrate on one task for a long period of time. When I work, I often switch between reading from my textbook and other unrelated activities, such as scrolling on my phone, getting up to walk around, and talking to my friends. I can’t even enjoy movies or videos without pausing them every few minutes or playing them at a faster speed. As a result, it takes a very long time for me to get seemingly simple tasks done. This change, however, is not unique to me — global attention spans have been shortening over the past few years. In fact, you’ve probably heard of one of the main reasons behind this strange shift: Tiktok.

How does Tiktok Draw Viewers In?

In order to understand how exactly Tiktok has been affecting our attention spans, let’s first dissect the format of an average video on the app. Even with the new features that allow for 3–10 minute videos, a majority of videos are between 21–34 seconds long. In addition, the algorithm constantly produces new videos for users to interact with. On apps like Instagram, there is an eventual end to the content on the home page: app users may come across a message such as ‘You’re all caught up: You’ve seen all new posts from the past 7 days’. On Tiktok, there is no such end to available content for users to consume. Further, users mainly see posts from people they choose to follow on Instagram — on Tiktok, they see content from people all over the world, regardless of whether they follow them or not. On an average day, a Tiktok user spends about 95 minutes on the app, which is considerably more time than other popular social media platforms like Instagram (29 minutes) and Snapchat (28 minutes)1. Many children and teenagers (like me) can spend hours on end scrolling through the app, looking for a quick and easy source of entertainment between classes or during small gaps throughout the day.

In a 2022 interview with Forbes magazine, USC professor Dr.Julie Albright describes Tiktok videos as “hypnotic,” stating that, “You’ll just be in this pleasurable dopamine state, carried away.” Dr. Albright also compares social media to slot machines: these platforms, especially Tiktok, share the same characteristic addictive properties as gambling 2. When scrolling, sometimes we get a desirable result and we see a video we like, and sometimes we don’t. This differentiation, according to Albright, is key to understanding the addiction-like properties of social media apps. We keep scrolling in hopes that we’ll see something that we like, and subsequently receive a dopamine hit in the pleasure center of our brains. While these hits of dopamine satisfy our reward system, repeated hits also increase our threshold for pleasure. As a result, we need to increase the frequency of our pleasure-inducing behavior — in this case, scrolling — to feel that same level of pleasure. This brings up a concerning question: what kind of effect are apps like Tiktok having on young children’s brains?

The Younger Generation

According to a study by Microsoft in 2021, the new adult attention span is, on average, four seconds less than the 12-second attention span 12 years ago. Populations, as a whole, are having more difficulty concentrating on one task at a time3. What does this mean for the younger generation, especially those individuals who spend a majority of their free time online? Our frontal lobes, which are in charge of executive functions such as attention, concentration, and impulse control, are actually the last areas of our brains to mature. In fact, they may not be fully developed until your mid-20s. So when children with undeveloped frontal lobes spend hours upon hours interacting with short, stimulating videos, this can mean serious consequences for their long-term attention spans and ability to navigate real world situations4. Jessica Griffin, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, says that the more time children spend online, the greater the reduction in real-life interactions — leading to stunted emotional and social development. Shortening attention spans translate into almost all areas of our life: for example, we may not be able to engage in deep concentration for certain tasks. Staying present in one-on-one conversations might become more difficult, potentially hindering us from forming close bonds with others5. Teachers have also reported that overstimulation online makes it harder for kids to engage with regular content in the classroom. When they’re constantly exposed to colorful, exciting, loud video content online, it makes regular learning in the classroom seem boring and uneventful6.

So, What Can We Do?

There’s obviously a reason why Tiktok is so popular — it’s fun, convenient entertainment that appeals to viewers of all ages and backgrounds. However, it’s also clear that if we allow ourselves to get swept away by the enjoyment we receive from scrolling, there may be serious consequences. So, how can we begin to steer ourselves away from this seemingly endless stream of content so that we don’t face these repercussions in the future?

One way we can keep our lives balanced and well-rounded is by practicing active mindfulness. Yoga, breathing exercises, journaling, and meditation are all ways of exercising mindfulness at home. It is also beneficial to set aside time for family and friends, and work on in-person interactions by building close relationships with those around us. Spending time in nature can also help us feel more grounded and less like we’re perpetually glued to our screens. Going on a hike, walking in the park, or reading a book outside are all great ways to engage in ‘natural’ mindfulness. Parents of young children should also encourage interaction with kids their age, and help them find fun hobbies they are interested in, like sports, art, music, or dance.

Interestingly, different forms of neurotechnology can actually help users focus better on certain tasks. The NeuroPlus Focus-Improving Headset boosts users’ attention by using built-in sensors to monitor their brainwaves. By measuring brain activity (EEG) and muscle tension (EMG), this headset sends real-time feedback to help improve users’ focus and self-control7. Another piece of technology, Mindset headphones, is designed to track the wearer’s focus throughout the day and alert them when their concentration drops. It works with whatever music users wish to listen to, and listens to the environment to actively cancel out distracting noises8. Ultimately, maintaining a balance between the online and physical world will benefit all of us in the long run, allowing us to lead happier, healthier, and more focused lives.

This article was written by Parvathy Nair, a freshman undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying Cognitive Science and Data Science. This article was edited by Jacob Marks, a senior undergraduate pre-medical student at UC Berkeley studying Cognitive Science.




We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley