For those of us who are essentially fossils at this point, in our memories, it began with Vine. “You now have six seconds to be funny” was the instruction given by the platform to its users. Then it was Musical.ly. After a merger with Musical.ly, TikTok – the most downloaded app of 2022 – was released worldwide in 2018. Keen to cash in on TikTok’s success, Instagram launched the Reels concept, shortly followed by Youtube Reels. Finally, Snapchat jumped onto the bandwagon with its own feature system called Spotlight. What do all of these forms of media have in common? One simple thing: how short they are. Does this mean anything? Has the length of consumable media shrunk to better suit our increasingly busy and chaotic modern existences or, more insidiously, has this short-form media axed our abilities to concentrate for more than six seconds?
It happens to everyone, right? The overpowering desire to drop whatever you’re working on and to check Instagram just for a second. Half an hour and a million reels later, that desire has been replaced by deep, deep shame. Back to work! But first, a quick Snap to keep up all your carefully-cultivated Snap streaks. Another twenty minutes before you emerge, hating yourself for how incredibly weak-willed you are. It doesn’t last long, though, and the next distraction quickly takes over. Just one more. And another. What harm can a third do? Before you know it, you’ve been sucked down another digital rabbit hole.
If this feels familiar to you, you’re not alone. There’s just something inexplicably moreish about entertainment that only lasts a few seconds. Psychologically, this makes complete sense. It’s just too easy to succumb to its deceptive charm. Micro-dosing on TikTok for a couple of hours somehow seems less like procrastination than sitting down to watch a full-length film. The easy consumability of bite-sized media makes it so much more appealing. Additionally, the algorithms of modern apps like Tiktok are based on the principle of random reinforcement. Simply put, it means that you win some and lose some. Though the Reel you just watched wasn’t particularly funny, the conviction that the next one could be is why you stay scrolling mindlessly. This search for intermittent gratification is the perfect trap and can slip into addictive behavioural patterns.
In the 1950s, the renowned American psychologist and behaviourist B. F. Skinner found that when rats received regular pellets as rewards for pressing a lever, they became bored and uninterested in the activity. However, when the pellets were awarded unpredictably, the rats became obsessive, even abandoning their usual activities (grooming, eating, sleeping, etc) to chase the high of the next big win. In fact, the researchers concluded that continuous positive reinforcement was the least effective reward pattern while variable ratio reinforcement was the most potent. As humans, we have fallen victim to this phenomenon too.
It’s no surprise that tech developers quickly worked out that the best way to keep us equally as obsessed would be through seemingly low-stakes short-form content. With longer media, it is easier to stop watching and give up the search for something interesting. 6-second Vines or 30-second TikToks solve that problem by pretending to need no real-time investment. But in reality, the investment – or rather the sacrifice – is huge. While it is true that these things were designed to appeal to basic animal psychology, it is becoming apparent that they are now actively changing our brain functions too. It’s a vicious cycle – short-form media suits our brief attention spans but overconsumption further exacerbates our collective inability to concentrate on anything for an extended period of time. We no longer want to wait for the ‘good’ bits and short-form media gets straight to the point.
Personally, I don’t think I could sit through a whole film anymore. Why would I want to? An Instagram Reel could give me the same hit of emotion in a much shorter timeframe – it is literally designed to be the perfect quick fix. The people around me are the same: lectures on double speed, YouTube videos watched with one finger tensed over the button that skips 5 seconds ahead, impatience with any media longer than a few minutes at most. In fact, nearly 50% of users surveyed by TikTok said that videos longer than a minute long were “stressful”. The truth is that our attention spans are shrinking – so much so that the effect of short-form media on our cognitive functions has been given a name: TikTok Brain. As this is a fairly new concept, there is not a lot of long-term scientific research yet, however, it has long been established that use of social media negatively affects academic performance by creating an attention deficit. Furthermore, a recent study focusing on young adults who use the Chinese equivalent of TikTok – Douyin – found mild to significant “addiction-like symptoms” in more than half of the participants. The correlation between short-form media and attention deficit needs more research, but with the evidence available, a worrying relationship seems to be emerging.
The addictiveness of short-form media isn’t just due to its more easily digestible length. Its brief nature means that more can be produced in a specific span of time. This oversaturation of entertainment possibilities further affects our attention spans. More choice means even less patience. The sheer amount of exciting new things to watch has birthed a much more competitive and fast-paced media landscape. Researchers from the Technical University of Denmark conducted a study, titled “Accelerating Dynamics of Collective Attention” showed a notable decrease in attention span over time, due to the “increasing production and consumption of content”. They discovered that a 2013 hashtag stayed on top for 17.5 hours on average, but in 2016, a top hashtag only retained its spot for an average of 11.9 hours. We crave fresh, we crave new, we crave more.
Short-form media has us acting like children in a candy shop and who can blame us? It’s human nature. Media that cuts straight to the chase in turn frees up more time to chase that dopamine high. It is an addiction that has been specifically modelled to prey on the way our brains work. It is a trap and a damn entertaining one at that.