Social Media Revolution Takes Attention Heist to a New Level

Parents once complained about the brain-rotting impact of radio and TV, but the algorithms of the internet age make platforms like TikTok far more dangerous.

Published: May 16, 2023  |  

Author and co-host of Labyrinths

Brain TV

There’s a long tradition of decrying the brain-rotting powers of new media. For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, glued to Saturday morning cartoons, we heard the refrain from our parents: “That TV is rotting your brain!” 

Now that I have a daughter and I see her entering into a world of ever more frenzied and seizure-like media—from TikTok to video games to the coming wave of virtual reality—I sympathize with my parents, who must have felt powerless against the attention-sticking powers of Nickelodeon slime.

When I grew up, there was still a lone TV in the house, and while it was a passive form of entertainment, it functioned as a centerpiece of family time, even if that time involved us pointing our gaze at a flickering screen. That had been true since my own parents’ youth, where they gathered around the black and white Zenith to watch Gunsmoke and I Love Lucy. Even back then, their parents had complained about how enamored their children were of the cathode ray tube. 

In 1958, famed news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow gave a speech that angered network executives. He said that television programming wasn’t being used to instruct, illuminate and inspire, but rather “to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us.” At its worst it was “nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

That generation grew up with bulky radio sets in the home, where the kids would gather around to listen to the latest episode of Amos n’ Andy or The Lone Ranger. Their parents worried that radio was rotting their brains, keeping them indoors and holding their minds “in a passive receptive state.”

This tradition stretches back to the beginnings of writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates relates a tale about an Egyptian named Theuth, the inventor of writing. Theuth showed his creation to the god Thamus, who replied:

“O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” 

Those words, in slightly different form, could equally apply to the creators of social media, none of whom foresaw the implications of their platforms for society and the mental and physical health of individuals—the rise of misinformation, the risks to democracy, the increase in pedestrian accidents, the worsening of eyesight and the collapse of attention spans. I wasn’t surprised to see in the documentary The Social Dilemma that many of these tech leaders drastically limit or entirely prevent their own children from using the social media platforms they helped invent.

It’s tempting to see this long tradition of anxiety around new media as a recurrent fear of the unfamiliar. They were worried about writing and radio that didn’t rot our brains, so what’s the big deal with TikTok? Unfortunately, the evidence shows otherwise. 

A recent study at Johns Hopkins found that increased TV consumption led to decreased cranial gray matter, which has implications for age-related cognitive decline. “Individuals who watched, on average, about an hour and a half more daily television than their peers throughout mid-to-late adulthood saw their brain volume reduced by approximately 0.5%.”

Our attention spans are shrinking, decreasing over the past 15 years from 2.5 minutes on average to just 47 seconds. There is also the well-documented “switching cost” of multitasking.

In the 1950s, American households were already watching more than four hours of television per day. By 2010, that number had reached nine hours. Television watching has declined since then with the rise of other forms of screen time, including internet browsing and smart-phone usage. Gen Zers spend, on average, half their waking time staring at screens. The pandemic also contributed to an increase in screen time for all demographics.

A big reason for these increases is that as entertainment technology has evolved, it has become more sophisticated at capturing our attention. Television is more engrossing than radio and TikTok is more engrossing than television. Data collection has been a huge part of this evolution. Gone are the days of crude Nielsen ratings for television programs which would be cut or renewed on a seasonal basis.

Now, Netflix knows the exact second you stop watching a show. Just as YouTube does for video clips and Spotify for podcasts. The TikTok algorithm pays close attention to your watch time of each clip to hone in on the exact set of clips to show you to maximize your screen time. 

Artificial intelligence is already being used in these algorithms to tune our entertainment streams to maximize our engagement and it will only become better and better at capturing our attention. My daughter is not quite two and my wife and I have tried to be sparing with the screen time we allow her.

Her mother speaks Italian and we want our daughter to learn the language, so we’ve decided that when we do let her watch kids’ entertainment—for a brief moment of parental respite—we put on Daniel Tiger in Italian.

It’s got wholesome messages and she’s learning a second language, which makes us feel better about how entranced she is by those large-eyed cartoons. But even then, we’ve turned our heads and found the YouTube algorithm drawing her further into less wholesome and more entrancing content. 

We didn’t need a knowledge of nutrition and healthy eating habits in the hunter-gatherer days, for there were no processed foods and natural sugar was far more rare than it is now.

But in today’s world of edible abundance, where we could consume nothing but sugar all day every day if we wanted, that knowledge and those habits are essential to resisting the negative effects of our own technology and prosperity. The same is true of our mental diet.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up a slave to the almighty algorithm. I don’t want to be one either. So we are doing our best as a family to practice attention management and disconnection. 

There is a growing body of literature on this subject and even technological solutions to moderate screen time. They are all worth looking into. First and foremost, we have to take stock of how outmatched our hunter-gatherer brains are by the attention capturing powers of modern media.

We have to understand that attention management is as crucial to our success as literacy. For better or worse, we’ve created a world that requires this skill. If we fail to learn it, we do so at our own peril. 

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