February 21, 2024

If you say you have never engaged with short-form content, you’re probably lying. Almost every college student has had TikTok downloaded on their phone. Even if they do not, they have been exposed to Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts at some point. 

According to a recent survey by BestColleges.com, 82% of college students use TikTok on a regular basis. Over the past few years, online content has dramatically shifted toward shorter content. Because of this, we are constantly exposed to this short-form content, which is taking a toll on our attention span. 

Short-form content is content that can be consumed within minutes or seconds. The medium first became popularized back in 2013, when the popular video-sharing site Vine was created. Vine stood out from other platforms because it only allowed users to post videos that were six seconds long. 

Over time, this model proved unsustainable, but it would set the precedent for TikTok’s online takeover in 2018. TikTok built a name for itself with its simple user interface and sophisticated “For You” page that would show each user videos based on their niche interests. 

This concept is what I believe has led many to become addicted to short-form content. These apps know exactly what we like, meaning we constantly receive dopamine when interacting with content on platforms like TikTok or Instagram Reels. This hyper-personalized form of engagement is designed to keep users on the site for as long as possible. 

“Short form content can become a crutch, making it difficult for people to focus on essential tasks.” 

Thus, short-form content can become a crutch, making it difficult for people to focus on essential tasks. This can be visualized in the scientifically proven instant gratification cycle. The process always starts with a difficult task that needs to be accomplished. 

However, when one hits a roadblock, they feel the urge to do something else. They then turn to something that will provide them with instant dopamine, which will make them feel rewarded. One way this applies to students is when they have a homework assignment that must be done but don’t enjoy working on it, causing them to open up TikTok.

I believe that most young people turn to short-form content in these situations. TikTok is perhaps the most low-effort resource for instant dopamine. As soon as you open the app, a video starts playing without the user having to do anything. The app already provides dopamine before the user is even aware it is happening. This is often true of YouTube as well, as occasionally the mobile app will automatically open on the Shorts tab. These apps encourage people to spend less and less effort engaging with content, which many users will translate to other areas of their lives. 

If one is constantly engaging with short-form content, they will eventually become dependent on that constant flow of dopamine they receive. 

Because dopamine is a hormone associated with motivation, this overload of dopamine dulls our receptors and makes it more challenging to feel motivated to complete everyday tasks. Thus, since we are not receiving dopamine, it is harder for people to concentrate for prolonged periods of time.

Not only does it lower attention spans, but it can also serve as a social substitute. In a recent study released by ScienceDirect, researchers examined the relationship between TikTok users and their social environment. They found that there was a strong correlation between social anxiety, social isolation and neuroticism in users who were addicted to TikTok. I believe these statistics indicate that TikTok has become a way for people to avoid getting out of their comfort zones and meeting new people. 

Similar to how short-form content can lower one’s attention span, it can also reduce one’s willingness to participate in social situations. This is because TikTok creates an artificial social environment where users can feel connected directly with their favorite creators. While this is not entirely untrue, prolonged exposure to these apps can result in stunted social interaction and higher anxiety levels in public environments.

“If you say you have never engaged with short-form content, you’re probably lying.”

This is not to say that one should entirely avoid short-form content. While the medium has many negative connotations, it can be an excellent way for people to quickly learn about current events and stay current on what is happening in their communities. 

However, one must be mindful and use these apps in moderation. Short-form content can quickly become addictive, leading many to develop bad habits with their work, schooling, and social life.

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