Is 'TikTok Brain' Affecting Kids?

TikTok app

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Key Takeaways

  • TikTok has become one of the most popular social platforms in the world, and kids and teens are spending more time than ever scrolling on the app.
  • Preliminary research and anecdotal evidence suggest this may be negatively impacting young people’s brain development and making it harder for them to focus on other activities.
  • Parents hoping to reduce the potentially harmful impacts of TikTok use should speak openly with their kids about the risks and ensure their days are filled with things other than screen time.

There’s no denying that scrolling on TikTok has become a consistent part of many people’s daily routine—especially children and teens. Today’s youth spend many of their waking moments consumed by the app’s short clips, personalized to fit each user’s specific interests.

Though research on TikTok usage is still limited, health professionals, educators, and parents have been noticing a worrying trend when it comes to children’s ability to focus for an extended period of time. Attention spans appear to be on the decline, and experts say too much screen time—particularly on TikTok—is at least partially to blame.

“Although we don’t yet have longitudinal research, there is no question that TikTok affects the brain, and children’s brains are still developing into their early to mid-20s,” Jessica Griffin, PsyD, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told Verywell.

The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain in which attention, impulse inhibition, prospective memory, and cognitive flexibility are modulated—is not fully developed until about the age of 25.

What Is “TikTok Brain”?

Several existing studies indicate that technology in general can and does harm young people’s impulse control and the ability to value delayed gratification. TikTok extended its maximum video length from three to 10 minutes recently, but its signature short videos—sometimes lasting for mere seconds—might be particularly consequential.

“Short videos, like candy, provide a rush of dopamine, a feel-good chemical that’s released in the pleasure center in our brains,” Griffin said. “That rush often leaves you wanting more—like kids in a candy store.”

This seems to make it harder for young people to step away from the app and highly challenging for them to transition to more productive activities.

A 2021 study on TikTok’s specific neurological effects examined how Douyin, China’s TikTok equivalent, affects Chinese college students’ brains. It found that watching personalized, algorithm-selected videos activates reward centers in the brain much more than watching random videos that haven’t been chosen specifically for the viewer. 

Brain scans of students who used the app regularly revealed addiction-like responses, and some research subjects lacked enough self-control to stop watching.

“If you are watching TikTok for long periods of time, it may lead to problems with attention, concentration, and short-term memory.” Griffin said.

In addition to the specific impacts of viewing short-form, personalized videos on a consistent basis, TikTok also presents the same challenges for young people as all other social media platforms, according to Griffin.

This includes a reduction in real-life interactions that can lead to stunted emotional and social development, as well as the possibility that even with parental controls, children will be exposed to potentially upsetting, harmful, or inaccurate information. Kids are also at increased risk of being targeted by predators on any online platform, Griffin said.

And that same algorithm that presents videos related to a child’s interests may also feed them clips that reflect their deepest fears and concerns. 

“If your child has concerns about an eating disorder, anxiety, or depression, they are more likely to have more content related to those topics show up in their feed—which could provide support but has the potential to be very damaging,” Griffin said.

What Can Parents Do?

New York-based psychotherapist Kathryn Smerling, PhD, LCSW, said she’s witnessed some of the negative effects of TikTok in her work with kids and teens, particularly when it comes to their ability to pay attention.

“There’s an inability even in my office for them to stay focused without looking at their phones,” she told Verywell.

And while outright banning kids from using the app isn’t necessarily a realistic or productive option, Smerling said parents who may be looking to protect their kids from “TikTok Brain” should speak openly with their children about the potential harms and encourage them to fill their time with a range of different activities.

Parents can also help their kids utilize TikTok’s screen time management tool, which allows users to choose a time cap that can be locked behind a four-digit passcode. 

“Talk about the pros and cons of social media and make sure that the time your children spend on [it] is limited so it’s not all they talk about or do,” she said. “Make sure they have well-rounded activities and keep to sports and physical activities, and do things in nature to counter the effects of social media. Ensure your child has a balanced life and has a lot of family time doing other things.”

What This Means For You

If you’ve noticed a change in your child’s ability to focus or put down their phone, you may be witnessing the effects of “TikTok Brain.” To counter it, ensure your child’s screen-time is limited, speak openly with them about the risks, and encourage them to spend time being physically active outdoors.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Wilmer HH, Chein JM. Mobile technology habits: patterns of association among device usage, intertemporal preference, impulse control, and reward sensitivity. Psychon Bull Rev. 2016;23(5):1607-1614. doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1011-z

  3. Su C, Zhou H, Gong L, Teng B, Geng F, Hu Y. Viewing personalized video clips recommended by TikTok activates default mode network and ventral tegmental areaNeuroimage. 2021;237:118136. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118136

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.