TikTok acts on children’s brains like a ‘candy store’ shortening their attention span: report


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The way kids consume social media, especially on TikTok, likely negatively affects their attention spans, according to a recent report from The Wall Street Journal.

“It is difficult to observe the growing trends in media consumption of all types, multimedia multitasking and ADHD rates. [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder] in young people and not conclude that there is a decrease in their attention span,” said Dr. Carl Marci, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Although the link between ADHD and screen time is debatable, new research suggests that the type of short, fast-paced videos kids are consuming today are partly responsible for why they struggle to participate. to longer-term activities.

According to a 2021 peer-reviewed study published in NeuroImage, the increased problematic use of TikTok by young adults was linked to a lack of self-control. The study also found, through internet addiction questionnaires and fMRI brain scans, that TikTok could cause significant problems in about 5.9% of its users.
(Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

TikTok, known as Douyin in its home market, debuted in China in September 2016 as a short form video sharing platform, mainly for lip-syncing and dance videos, but has become the most most downloaded in 2019, according to an article published in NeuroImage last year.

The article is one of several studies to examine the effect of TikTok on the brain, which examined how personalized videos, compared to general interest videos, influenced the reward centers of the brain.

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Participants’ MRIs were strongly activated in the addiction part of the brain who watched personalized videos, finding some users had difficulty controlling when to stop watching.

In general, activities that require sustained attention, such as reading and math problems, use the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control known as the prefrontal cortex, according to the Journal.

The NeuroImage study shows an inverse correlation between problematic TikTok use (PTU) and scores on a self-control scale (SCS).  The researchers scanned the brains of heavy TikTok users as they watched algorithmically personalized videos (PV) on their feeds and compared it to the brains of people who had never used TikTok who watched generalized videos (GV ) that don't have a user-specific preference.  Subjects who viewed the PVs saw a statistically significant increase in activation of their middle prefrontal cortex (MPFC) which is functionally dissociated from decision-making, self-knowledge, social cognition and moral judgment, and episodic memory.

The NeuroImage study shows an inverse correlation between problematic TikTok use (PTU) and scores on a self-control scale (SCS). The researchers scanned the brains of heavy TikTok users as they watched algorithmically personalized videos (PV) on their feeds and compared it to the brains of people who had never used TikTok who watched generalized videos (GV ) that don’t have a user-specific preference. Subjects who viewed the PVs saw a statistically significant increase in activation of their middle prefrontal cortex (MPFC) which is functionally dissociated from decision-making, self-knowledge, social cognition and moral judgment, and episodic memory.
(Study by NeuroImage via Su, Zhou, Gong, Teng, Geng and Hu)

“Directed attention is the ability to inhibit distractions, hold attention, and shift attention appropriately. It requires higher-order skills such as planning and prioritization,” Dr. Michael Manos, clinical director of the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Attention and Learning. .

But many children struggle with this kind of skill because the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until they reach adulthood at age 25, according to the outlet.

But Manos noted, “While children’s brains get used to constant change, the brain has a hard time adapting to non-digital activity where things don’t move as fast.”

TikTok uses an algorithm to personalize video feeds based on the time they watch each video and then scrolls through similar content, according to a recent Wall Street Journal survey.

But the newspaper noted that the company was now working on ways for the algorithm to diversify its videos, with a TikTok spokeswoman saying it was working to reduce excessive application time.

But TikTok isn’t the only social platform kids are having a hard time letting go of, with Google also making changes to limit usage by not auto-replaying videos for accounts of people under 18. according to the Journal.

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The brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when it anticipates a reward, so the dopamine rush makes us crave more — a delicious meal, medicine, or a viral TikTok video, according to the Journal.

“TikTok is a dopamine machine,” said Dr. John Hutton, pediatrician and director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

“If you want kids to pay attention, they have to practice paying attention.”

Some simple strategies to increase children’s attention spans are to encourage exercise and play time, but: “Depriving children of technology doesn’t work, but at the same time reducing it and building other things, like playing outside works,” said Johann Hari, author of “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deep Again.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to one hour for children between the ages of 2 and 5, which will have a positive impact on the development of communication skills and physical health.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to one hour for children between the ages of 2 and 5, which will have a positive impact on the development of communication skills and physical health.
(Photo by Kevin Candland/Getty Images)

TikTok and YouTube also allow parents to create their own account and link it to their children, known as Family Pairing and Google Family Link, respectively, to limit usage, but parents can also set direct limits on Apple and Android devices.

“We are committed to giving parents insight and control over how their teens use TikTok and to facilitating important conversations within families about responsible browsing of digital platforms,” TikTok said in a 2020 press release. .

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Because children won’t want to put down their entertainment devices initially, they should practice turning them off, as this will gradually strengthen the connections in their brains to make them easier to turn off the next time, said Dr. Bonnie Nagel, professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University.

Some examples of how to do this include not allowing children to use their social media devices at the table and setting daily limits on how long they can use them, according to the Journal.

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“It’s like we put kids in a candy store to live and then told them to ignore all that candy and eat a plate of veggies,” said James Williams, tech ethicist and author of “Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy.”

“We have an endless stream of immediate pleasures unparalleled in human history.”


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