Three seconds or less: how TikTok is making it harder to keep people focused

Jackson Caudill

As technology evolves, it usually follows a similar pattern: a new invention or concept is born, which is refined into a better version of itself, which is then further and further refined. Take photography for example. What started as the ability to capture a moment in time evolved into a series of rapid captures displayed at once, which is now a near-ubiquitous media we all consume through television or sites like YouTube: videos. In more recent years though, the way we consume this content has begun to change. Rather than people watching more traditional content like shows or movies, more and more people are beginning to switch to watching more and more on TikTok, a social media site that primarily focuses on much shorter content, with most videos being under ten seconds. Because of how short the average video is, it’s easy to just scroll through without really thinking about it, and not giving what we’re seeing much of a thought during the three seconds in which we decide if we want to keep scrolling or not.

Of course, we can’t just go through all our lives scrolling through the things we don’t care about. When we have to focus after being able to skip through things we don’t care about, suddenly, it becomes a lot more difficult to stay engaged, and our minds begin to wander off. For a lot of people, focusing on your studies is already enough to worry about, but the more you get used to just swiping away what you don’t want to see, the harder that can become. This issue can especially be seen when working with younger children, as Dawn Justice, a third-grade teacher, has noticed. “I’ve been teaching either part-time or full-time for thirty-three years. The biggest hurdle I have always had to deal with is being able to keep their attention. I used to be able to do things like change my voice or have my kids move around, but these tricks just don’t work anymore. In a way, it just feels like they look at me for a few minutes, and think ‘Oh, she’s kinda funny,’ and then they just start to get bored and stop paying attention.” The easiest comparison you can make here is that her children view her as another TikTok. After listening to her for a bit, they feel that same urge they normally do when they are swiping through videos, only this time they just can’t get away. This change in the way students engage with their material has led to new strategies in how educators are taught as well. “I’ve noticed that professional development opportunities have begun to change as well, where it used to be focused on knowing the content you’re teaching, which is of course very important, but now it’s all about student engagement. One of the biggest changes I’ve started to do is teaching in chunks. Rather than it all being ‘sit and get’, we might start with a more traditional lesson, then for the second activity I have them work with a partner, and for the third, we usually do some kind of technology activity, like a Kahoot.” This strategy makes education almost into a game itself, where you have to plan out what strategies would work to make sure your students aren’t just tuning you out. It also takes advantage of the same idea that TikTok uses, that the more stimulation you provide, the more people are engaged with your content. Of course, there’s a reason why we’re all on TikTok instead of Kahoot. Simply put, TikTok is just more fun. Kahoot has winners and losers, but on TikTok, everyone’s a winner. You’re being shown just what you want to see, and if you aren’t enjoying what you’re seeing, you can just swipe on by giving people a sense of instant gratification. Every swipe brings something new, and the more time you spend on the app, the more it learns what you like, keeping you more engaged and essentially making the problem worse.

As much as this new style of content has its issues, there’s one surprising benefit: it ironically works as a teaching tool, as Caleb Bramel, a systems engineer for Netgain Technologies shared with me. “I’ve seen mechanics do videos about how to change your tire in just ten seconds, or other people do something like how to tie a tie in fifteen seconds. It’s a very handy way to help explain things. I’ve even made a few myself, for what I do in system administration. I don’t publish them outside of the company of course, but it’s been really helpful for training new hires, or even just for when I need a quick refresher on something I’m working on.” By meeting students where their attention spans are, it would be much easier to teach them the content they need to learn. As difficult as it would be for older teachers, creating short videos that can explain the concept well, then focusing more time on applying the content in the classroom could be a very effective method for getting students to retain the material as it could prove to be a more effective method of explaining the content.  

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