How TikTok capitalized on declining attention span caused by social media


At the time when the social media platform Facebook was launched, we were still understanding how to use the Internet. Facebook wasn’t the first social networking site out there, MySpace came before it. However, like many other internet platforms at the time, they were still figuring out how to draw an attractive painting on this new canvas of the interweb.


With time, we saw that Facebook became one of the key drivers of online social media. Then we began to see some negative effects of social media, along with a few positive ones of course. Bu the catalyst of these trends was none other than the young generation of people growing up along with the worldwide web.

Most users of Facebook were of the younger generation, mostly teenagers and college goers who have the curiosity to try everything new they got to see.

Whether it was Facebook, Instagram, or any platform we use, the effects of social media are shaped by the younger generation.

I still remember my high-school when my mom bought a phone with a QWERTY keypad (a Samsung C3222) for the first time. She simply bought such a phone as it resembled a trendy Blackberry phone and was relatively convenient for messaging compared to a conventional candybar phone.

In India, Moms are a busy lot. While my mother had a flashy tech gadget to flaunt in her kitty parties, she never had the time to access its other features mainly concerned with exploring the internet. Understandably so, as like any other middle-aged human, she had a long list of priorities. Managing two children, cooking meals, gossiping with neighbors, and taking care of our home consumed her entire day.

I, on the other hand, had a lot of time after coming home from school. So I decided to spend some of this time on mom’s new phone, and thus began my exploration of the new world of the Internet. I’m sure a lot of children and teenagers in the years between 2002-2010 have similar stories.

The thing is, most adults – once they have started working or began taking care of families have too many responsibilities in hand. This is why they are not often the early adopters of new technology or a new social networking app.

This is the reason why the younger generation, mostly generation-Z and the Millenials have shaped the social media impact on human behavior and society we live in today. The boomers have simply adapted to it or made subtle changes. I would go further to say that such internet platforms only became suitable to use for the older group of people when their makers began commercializing them. This commercialization was meant more for the general population (the middle-aged and older people) than the youth because that’s where most businesses found opportunities to make money.

Of course, no matter how much engagement you bring in from children and teenagers, at the end of the day – money comes from their parents. So why not target them directly to keep the business growing?

This is why over the years of using such sites, I have come to make this assumption that any social media platform is best suited for the younger generation unless it is commercialized. It is only when these platforms are commercialized that you see content targeted at higher-age groups.

But the most recent social media app sensation, called TikTok, gives us new information about what drives the impact of social media on youth.

How TikTok capitalized on the declining attention span of people to increase user engagement

decline in human attention span from 2000-2015
A Study by The Statistic Brain Research Institute shows how the average human attention span has declined from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to just 8.25 seconds as of the year 2015.

A Study by The Statistic Brain Research Institute shows how the average human attention span has declined from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to just 8.25 seconds as of the year 2015.

Most of you have already heard about this widely circulated report that mentions how human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to a mere 8 seconds as of 2015. What role does the internet play in reducing our attention span?

A paper submitted at the 15th eLearning and Software for Education Conference (eLSE 2019), titled “The Dark Side Of Digitalization: Information And Communication Technology Influence On Human Learning Processes” by authors Petrasuc Ana-Maria Gabriela and Popescul Daniela tries to answer this question as part of the broader subject covered in the research.

The paper suggests that constant distractions in the form of notifications on phones from social media apps often interrupt activities of young users, regardless of whether the activity is done through the internet or traditional mediums.

People have got so used to such diversions that their brain struggles to focus on one particular activity. So long as distractions from intermittent notifications distract users, their minds will never put 100% focus on a task at hand.

Since the younger brains of people are seemingly getting used to dedicating part of their focus on such distractions from social media platforms, it is no longer possible for most of the internet-addicted users to negate its long-term effects. One of these effects is a shorter attention span.

Over time, this information has led businesses, especially online marketers to question – How do you create active online engagement in a world where people have a shorter attention span?

The best answer seems quite straightforward – influencing people within the short span that they have your attention. This newfound belief has given birth to new strategies that capture the attention of users within seconds.

Clickbait titles, over-edited thumbnails, exaggerated introductions, among a lot of other techniques have come to be used by everyone who can benefit from the attention of an internet user.

Such techniques have obviously worked well, which is why you see YouTubers using them. Such has been the success of these tactics that even traditional media outlets started using them in their digital editions.

As good as these techniques are for achieving commercial motives, they have obviously diluted the quality of content. Subsequently, users have become conditioned to noticing these tactics and a small percentage of them have started to avoid videos using such practices.

So how can creators grab viewer attention while not making them bored within seconds? Here’s where an app called “Douyin” in China, known globally as “TikTok” has changed the game.

While clickbait and exaggerated intros diluted the quality of a traditional ten-minute video on YouTube, platforms such as and TikTok (later merged into one after ByteDance’s acquisition of made creators compress their content into a format no more than 60 seconds. This compression made the content easily adaptable to suit the shorter attention span of users, and in doing so it switched the focus back to quality!

YouTube’s algorithms favored long-form videos. Those weren’t best suited for the shorter attention-span, albeit the recommendation algorithm somewhat made up for it. In TikTok, creators found an easier platform where they could make the algorithms work in their favor and attract users with short attention spans.

TikTok: A platform tailored to nurture your short attention span

tiktok short attention span
Unlike other apps that force you to create an account, TikTok immerses you into entertainment as soon as you open the app for the first time

Unlike other apps that force you to create an account, TikTok immerses you into entertainment as soon as you open the app for the first time.

The TikTok app has been tailored to give what the user seeks, that is entertainment, almost instantly. It begins the moment you install the app. Unlike most applications that force you to sign up before accessing anything, TikTok gets you straight to the content.

That alone speaks about the measures ByteDance, the creator of the app takes to negate anything mundane that could hinder engagement. You’re only required to sign up if you want to follow other “TikTokers” or comment on their videos. You’ll certainly want to do both as the short videos one after the other keep you engaged.

Remember the study I previously cited in the article? It mentioned how constant distractions in the form of notifications don’t let a user give 100 percent of their focus on any online task at hand. In TikTok, you are intentionally “distracted” by being able to view a new video with an upward swipe almost every 15 seconds, which is the average duration of videos uploaded on the platform.

Having less than 15 seconds to focus on a video means that the subject covered doesn’t require you to pay your 100 percent attention. Entertainment, especially the kind delivered through TikTok only requires your subconscious attention.

When watching a 10-minute YouTube video that rants on a hated online celebrity, you are constantly looking at the screen the entire time while doing nothing else. Since no part of the body is at work except the mind, it requires focused attention (unless the content delivers something surprising every 10 seconds, which is mostly possible with cuss words and other expletives).

This is why it is easy to remember about the stove you switched on, or the studies you forgot to do for your exam tomorrow while spending time on the YouTube video.

In TikTok, however, you’re constantly greeted with a new video every 15 seconds. All you have to do is make an upward swipe and a new dose of entertainment kicks in. This makes it harder for your brain to remember about the homework as it is subconsciously focused on swiping up for the next video in your feed.

By capitalizing on micro-distractions that your mind considers positive or immersive – apps such as TikTok have found it easier to control the young developing minds of the new generation.

The younger generation is gaining knowledge faster than ever

A shorter attention span has positive benefits too! It helps learn stuff easily and creates more room for multitasking. Thanks to the internet, the youngsters of today are much faster at learning new skills powered by modern technology.

However, the downside is that knowing how to do something isn’t always knowledge. Sometimes, it is more important to understand the depths of a subject matter to decide the kind of action that is to be taken upon a situation. That depth in understanding is what inculcates a scientific temper, makes it difficult for anyone to influence other people, or to change their mindset easily.

20 years ago, people could gain knowledge of one concept in ten minutes at a 100% understanding rate. Today, people learn ten concepts in ten minutes at a 10% understanding rate. Is it a good thing considering the rate of technological progress across the world? You be the judge.

P.S – I also use TikTok, and I watch as well as create some makeup related videos on the platform. It’s great for the short breaks in between working from home for my job. And I will admit this myself, I too have been addicted to the app as much as any other person of this generation. Can we figure out something about this addiction?

Arushi Meena

Arushi is a Digital Marketer by profession, but a writer at heart. Aside from being a hopeless romantic and a quirky personality, she's all about having fun and letting others have a share of the same!

Leave a Reply

Back to top