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How do Algorithm Driven Platforms Impact Attention Span in Youth?

Feier Long

          Buzz—”, it sounds like a notification from your phone. Would you immediately go check what's going on? Interestingly, ever since that buzzing sound, your attention span has been compromised. With the proliferation of technology, accessing a high volume of information has become significantly easier. You could potentially grasp the fundamentals of Computer Science in a day with a few taps on your device.


          But, can you recall the last time you sat down in class without sneaking a peek at your phone, scrolling through social media, or engaging in a meaningful conversation with your peers? While this may not be physically noticeable, our neurons fire whenever new information is processed. Specifically, this can lead to biological changes in the structure of our brain, potentially fostering addictive behaviors. To contextualize, the popularity of online platforms like Instagram Reels, Youtube Shorts, and TikTok has surged significantly. They all seem to share one common feature – the recommendation of short videos using algorithms. So, what is the allure of these short videos? Why have all platforms suddenly adopted this approach? How do we, as humans, gradually become more addicted and captivated without even realizing it?           

          Let's examine the Instagram feed. With posts, there is a sense of 'gratification' or 'pleasure' associated with likes or positive comments. It's akin to doses of dopamine being injected into your brain every time you find something interesting. However, after a while, you might get bored due to repetitive or uninteresting posts and put your phone aside. Nonetheless, the constant release of dopamine mirrors the effects of drugs, diminishing your ability to focus as each 'dopamine hit' makes you increasingly impatient.            When you're bored, you may find yourself peeking at your phone, seeking another dopamine hit even in the absence of new notifications. Additionally, if you look at TikTok's recommendation algorithm, the content on the 'For You' page is practically endless. Their algorithms are specifically designed to tailor individual feeds based on the user's interactions with each scroll. So, what happens to the user? Much like the Instagram post, a new dopamine surge is triggered with each scroll. But what if the recommendations are customized to the user's interests? Users may find themselves scrolling incessantly, trapped on the platform for hours without even realizing it. Even when they come across an uninteresting feed, it's easy for users to move on to the next video, continually seeking that dopamine pulse. 

         Over time, our brains, continually operating in a state of multitasking, experience a diminished ability to focus and an overall reduced attention span. This habit spills over into our daily lives; during moments of boredom, the craving for instant dopamine stimulation prompts us to reach for our phones in search of the next hit of immediate gratification. This cycle perpetuates and can detrimentally impact an individual's well-being. This reality then poses a pressing question — to what extent should these platforms be held accountable for the declining concentration among younger users?

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