TikTok like a ‘candy store’ of ‘immediate pleasure’ for child users, says Oxford University ethicist

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TikTok is like a ‘candy store’ full of ‘immediate pleasure’ for child users, Oxford University ethicist warns

  • An expert from Oxford University warns that the popular social media platform TikTok could be ruining the attention span of the American youth
  • James Williams warned they were delivering an ‘endless flow’ of pleasure via short, 15 second, videos
  • Children find it harder to quit the app as their pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls focus, is still developing
  • Around 60% of American children aged 12 to 15 use the app on at least a weekly basis

Letting children use TikTok and other fast-paced video apps is like placing them in a ‘candy store’ full of ‘immediate pleasure’, an Oxford University ethicist has warned. 

There are mounting concerns over how these platforms, which host videos typically lasting just 15 seconds, impact youngsters developing brains.

But now a tech scientist and former advertising strategist at Google says it could leave children struggling to focus on everyday tasks.

James Williams, and ethicist at Oxford, told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ): ‘It’s like we’ve made kids live in a candy store and then we tell them to ignore all that candy and eat a plate of vegetables.’

‘We have an endless flow of immediate pleasures that’s unprecedented in human history.’

Directed attention is when someone ignores distraction and pays attention to a particular task for a long period of time, such as a lesson or homework.

But scientists warn that if the brain becomes accustomed to ‘constant changes’ — like those in the digital world — it finds it difficult to stay focused.  

TikTok shot to popularity in 2018 thanks to its quick-form videos, which typically last about 15 seconds. Concern is now mounting that they are harming children’s ability to focus, however (file photo)

TikTok is the second most popular social media platform among children in the U.S., behind only YouTube, with around 60 percent of those aged 12 to 15 using it weekly.

The platform shot to popularity in 2018 for its quick-form videos. In 2021, it topped more than a billion users globally.

But concerns have since been raised that the app’s fast-paced videos could leave children finding it harder to focus on everyday tasks.

How does TikTok affect children’s focus? 

Amid the social media platform’s rise to become one of the most popular in the US, concerns have been raised over how it impacts children’s focus. 

Directed attention is when someone spends a long period of time on a particular task, like homework.

But some scientists suggest that if the brain becomes accostumed to rapid changes — such as those on TikTok — it begins to struggle to focus. 

Dr Michael Manos, the clinical director for attention and learning at Cleveland children’s hospital, told the WSJ: ‘Directed attention is the ability to inhibit distractions and sustain attention and to shift attention appropriately. 

‘It requires higher-order skills like planning and prioritizing

‘If kids’ brains become accustomed to constant changes, the brain finds it difficult to adapt to a nondigital activity where things don’t move quite as fast.’

To maintain focus on a particular task children and adults use the prefrontal cortex area of the brain.

But this is not fully developed until the age of 25, which scientists argue makes it harder for youngsters to stay focused on a single activity for a long period of time. 

TikTok draws in users by monitoring which videos they spend the longest watching, and then showing them more videos similar to these.

Studies show that when users watch these it activates centers of the brain involved in addiction, further making it harder to put down the app.

Separate research has highlighted how social media and smartphones may be linked to rising rates of depression and loneliness. 

Last month a paper found the proportion of 15 and 16-year-olds in the UK feeling alienated among peers has tripled since 2000 to 33 percent.

They said the rise coincides with widespread use of smartphones and social media by this age group.

Pupils are ‘conversing less’ and feeling excluded when they see online pictures of peers having fun without them.

The paper found that in 2000, 10 percent of 15 and 16-year-olds in the UK reported feeling lonely at school. In 2003, levels remained virtually unchanged at 9 percent.

A TikTok spokeswoman told WSJ that the app had recently made changes to curb extensive use of the app, including blocking users under-15 from receiving notifications beyond 9 pm and sending them regular reminders to take a break.

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