‘TikTok brain’ explained, and what parents can do about it

Constant bite-sized videos creating attention issues, affect brain function

SAN ANTONIO – Some experts in medicine and education are using the term “TikTok brain” to describe a situation where children consume so much 15-second entertainment that they cannot focus on long-form communication.

The never-ending bite-sized videos on TikTok and other social media platforms are apparently harming brain function.

“Some studies have demonstrated that use of social media is associated with the way that the brain functions and responds to social stimuli,” said UT Health San Antonio psychiatrist Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy.

Robles-Ramamurthy said a lot of it has to do with social media algorithms.

“They are using scientific information about how our brain works to keep us coming back, and so some of those loops have to do with dopamine, which can be associated with addiction, for example,” she said.

The issue is real for adults, too, but the concern is higher for children whose brains are still developing.

“We use different imaging techniques to see how different parts of the brain are communicating with each other, and there have been some studies showing concerns about how youth may respond to social cues or even expectations of social interactions based on how much social media they use,” Robles-Ramamurthy said.

“Concerns about how youth may respond to social cues or even expectations of social interactions based on how much social media they use,” she said.

There are certain signs parents and teachers can look out for.

“If they cannot put their phone down for more than an hour without checking it, or if it’s impacting their ability to listen to lectures at school, or they cannot even have a phone call conversation, that may be a sign that it’s time to take a break,” Robles-Ramamurthy said.

She wants to clarify that social media isn’t all negative.

“There are some special and important aspects it brings to our lives, so it’s really about balancing it out,” she said.

As an adult and child psychiatrist, Robles-Ramamurthy always tells parents to have ongoing conversations with their kids about how social media can impact their lives.

When attention becomes an issue, set rules about putting the phone down.

She also said adults should reflect on being good examples by assessing their attention span, how much they use their phones, and how present they are with other people.

This discussion comes after the U.S. Surgeon General recently released a report discussing the impact of social media on youth mental health.

Many national organizations supported the research, expressed similar concerns, and wanted to bring more attention to the issue.


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About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.