Life

Why TikTok makes the hours seem to melt away, according to experts who study how our brains perceive time

Business Insider US
Social media may be addictive, according to research, and it's mostly up to the individual to control their habit.
  • Any TikTok user will tell you they can lose hours to the app. 
  • According to scientists, there are a few psychological and social reasons for this.
  • Most alarmingly, the way some of us use social media has parallels with addiction. 
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

Any TikTok user will tell you time melts away while using it. One video becomes five, becomes ten, becomes countless as you scroll away the boredom, provided with an endless reel of content that's been so carefully tailored to your exact interests. The more time you spend on TikTok, the creepier it seems at accurately predicting what you want to watch next.

TikTok, like the social media platforms that came before it, can be so stimulating that users begin to experience something akin to addiction. Some have had to delete the app altogether to get on top of their habit.

According to researchers who specialize in the psychology of time perception, being on social media can warp our ability to time-keep. This can have wide-reaching implications, such as having a decreased ability to concentrate, or affecting one's social life. There is a straightforward solution, scientists told Insider — the only problem is it hinges on an individual's ability to recognize the problem, fight their denial, and put controls in place themselves.

Why being on TikTok makes it feel like time is speeding up

Lazaros Gonidis and Dinkar Sharma, researchers from the University of Kent's School of Psychology, looked into how people perceive time spent on Facebook in 2017. They found in a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology that in general, people underestimated the time they were spending on it. The findings may be applicable to TikTok as well, Gonidis told Insider — potentially even more so as TikTok is such a fast-paced platform.

"We flick through the videos one after the other one after the other," Gonidis said. "And then without realizing, we have spent an hour or two, instead of spending 10 minutes."

Gonidis studies time perception in relation to gaming and internet gambling as well. What all of these things have in common, he said, is that people may use them for escaping reality. There's nothing wrong with this in theory, but when something is incredibly entertaining and enjoyable, and there is no limit on our usage, we put more and more time into it without realizing.

In comparison, if someone is playing football for an hour every week, Gonidis said, their brain gets pretty good at estimating that duration and will send signals to indicate tiredness and that the game is finishing soon. With TikTok, people rarely put those kinds of boundaries in place. When they first start using the app, they may watch five videos. But over time, those five videos will no longer be enough to get the same dopamine hit.

"Your mind doesn't think anymore that you have watched five videos — it doesn't send you that signal that, 'Oh, I'm satisfied now I've watched my five videos, I should move on to something else,'" he said. "And then as time progresses, we just keep spending more and more time."

Soon, an hour on the app will seem like nothing to the user because "the brain doesn't really release the same amount of dopamine in that amount of time," he said.

Adults can counteract these compulsions with the responsibilities of their day. They can't spend 12 hours a day on TikTok because they have to go to work and get their tasks done. A child or teenager isn't as culpable for their time so they may be much more susceptible to scrolling their whole day away. Studies are already showing that addiction-like behaviors are closely linked to worse performance at school and university, Gonidis said, "so we do know quite a few of the implications already."

Our social media habits may have parallels with addiction

Ofir Turel, a professor of information systems management at the School of Computing and Information Systems at The University of Melbourne who specializes in the psychology of technology users, told Insider that in a lot of addictive behaviors, people lose track of time because there is a difference between physical time and what's known as "cognitive time."

For example, a smoker who is trying to quit will perceive how long it has been since their last cigarette as longer than it actually is. This is because of two processes in the brain: arousal and attention. Arousal indicates how excited we are by an activity, and attention meaning how able we are to count units of time while doing it.

In one study by Turel and colleagues Damien Brevers and Antoine Bechara, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research in 2018, they found that people with addiction-like symptoms towards social media showed a much stronger time perception bias — they perceived the task they were doing, where they were forced to think about social media but prevented from using it, as taking much longer.

"The flip side of it is that when they're doing something else that prevents them from using TikTok — let's say they're stuck in class, and they have to listen to a teacher talking for an hour — it may seem to them longer and more boring than it actually is," Turel said.

The fight to reclaim our attention spans and perception of time is also difficult because we are faced with platforms specifically designed for us to spend time on them. All social media companies are fighting for our attention, Turel added, "bombarding" us and using "dirty psychological tricks."

"They're allowed to do that," he said. "At the end of the day, we, as society, need to learn how to live more responsibly with these technologies."

What individual users can do to control their compulsion to go on social media

Social media companies should take some responsibility in the part they play in getting people to spend longer and longer on their platforms, Gonidis said, but the reality is that most companies "will avoid taking any action for as long as they can."

There are healthy ways to use apps like TikTok, he said, just like people can drink alcohol or gamble responsibly. But that responsibility currently falls on the individual, and "not all users will be mindful of what is happening to them," he said.

In Turel's research, his team has found that if a group of social media users was shown the amount of time they spent on certain apps, they reduced their use the following week. What that shows, he said, is that people are typically shocked at their usage, and become mindful once they've actually faced their behavior.

Overall, it's an issue of motivation and getting people to face the way they use apps like TikTok. People tend to think their habits are benign, Turel said, so they don't have the incentive to change.

"If they want to, if they're given the correct information, they could take control over their social media use," he said. "Not everybody, but most people can."



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