One of my school teacher friends was bemoaning recently the drop in concentration spans she has noticed in the children she teaches. ‘They can’t focus on reading or watch a programme for more than 5 minutes!’ Clearly, I am not the only one who thinks we’re in danger of forgetting about things that aren’t five seconds long.
Before we begin, I want to make clear that this is not some boring old millennial slagging off TikTok. This social media platform can be incredible. It gives under-represented minorities a platform and a voice, it finds genuine talent, and for a vast proportion of the world, it is now ‘just the internet’. A Google executive recently noted that 40 per cent of 18-24s now use TikTok to search for a place to have lunch instead of their own search engine.
That said, moderation is key. I hate myself for spending valuable minutes of my life mindlessly scrolling through TikTok, my brain too overstimulated to form any meaningful emotional response to any of it. Nice video of a cute cat playing with another cute kitty – “that’s cute,” says my brain. Next!
Since the pandemic started, studies show that many of us have really struggled with our concentration levels. We’ve became so reliant on our phones to stay connected that we’ve found it really hard to get out of the habit.
Unmoderated, it’s completely overstimulating and overpowering and because of this, you can easily forget about the other places and ways to find joy. For instance, you might find it hard to pick up a book to read and leave your phone alone but when you crack it, it makes you so happy and calm, opening up new worlds and stimulating the imagination.
The same can be said for when I watch the television. I think I enjoy it much more when I’m watching it and scrolling on my phone. But I don’t. I’m not fully present. Social media and the internet can wait. And I’d be better off forming my own opinions instead of looking for someone else’s.
Our brains should only be doing one thing at a time, and admitting to myself that it’s a problem with this has really helped. I now set aside time to read every day. And I’m getting better at not having instant gratification from the things I watch. A recent new release hubby and I enjoyed on Apple TV for example forced me to wait a week between episodes. Initially, I was annoyed – I want it now like everything else in life! – but it made the whole thing much more enjoyable and when I watched it, I thought about it.
I then talked it through with hubby, savoured it and genuinely looked forward to each Friday because there was a new one. It’s far better than bingeing the whole thing in six hours. Your brain cannot possibly process the nuances of the writing or the subtlety of the acting. These things have been painstakingly made, so the least we can do is painstakingly watch them.
If I want to have half an hour being mindless on TikTok, then that’s great. It can be really fun to zone out occasionally. But I want to be the one in charge. It’s a horrible feeling when you look up and realise your phone’s stolen an hour of your life and you weren’t in control of it. As good as police chases and endless videos of Harry Styles in his jumpsuits are, they can’t be the only things we put into our brains. I want things in there that I remember and treasure. Things that inspire me and nourish my Covid-addled brain.
We need to slow the pace of everything down, because these apps are deliberately set up to hook us in and get our brains used to an insanely fast turn over of content. It’s unhealthy, not to mention unnatural. As the late great Terry Wogan once said: “Take it easy, life’s short enough as it is without rushing it”. We can only cope with so much.