Rise in Short-Form Content Has Been Connected to Decline in Mental Health

by Declan Rooney ‘25

Short form content is a type of media that is brief, quick, and consumed rapidly. Over the past decade, there has been a tremendous rise of this type of media online, from early blog posts to TikTok, due to its huge popularity and profitability. However, concerns are growing about the potential consequences of the addictive nature of these apps.

The first Short form content social media was Vine, a very popular app that existed from 2013 to 2017. Short form content is defined as any online content that is formatted as brief and concise. Vine was formatted a lot like many popular short form social medias today; it had a central feed where users could scroll through an endless pile of short videos that each were anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds long. Behind that feed was an algorithm that tracked what users engaged with and fed them more of that type of content. TikTok, which operates with similar systems, came into the mainstream after a merger with another app Music.ly in 2018. TikTok had long been successful in China, operating under the name Douyin, before coming to the United States. Once TikTok came to the United States through a merger, it blew up in popularity and has continued to grow since. Users love the app for its short comedy videos, political debates, sport updates, dancing, and even occasionally news.

Showing shorter videos in rapid succession means users consume content at a higher rate, which in turn means more ads and higher ad revenue. According to a 2021 article entitled “What Makes TikTok so Addictive?: An Analysis of the Mechanisms Underlying the World’s Latest Social Media Craze” by the Brown Undergraduate Journal of Public Health, “Recent reports reveal that users spend an average of 46 minutes per day on the app and open it eight times daily; considering the maximum length of videos is 15 seconds, they may watch upwards of 180 videos per day on average.” TikTok has since surpassed its competitors as the most downloaded social media app in addition to becoming the most valuable startup in the world at $75 billion. Since this form of new content is so profitable many other social media giants have implemented a similar feature within their own app. Youtube introduced its own feature “Shorts” in 2021. Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, launched “Reels” in 2020. Viewers might even find these short form content features in places you wouldn’t expect, such as the website for National Public Radio (NPR). This is because of another factor that makes short form content so profitable: its addictive qualities.

Showing users a series of short videos is a highly stimulative process that leads to users spending more time than they thought they had on scrolling through their feed. According to an article in the Brown Undergraduate Journal of Public Health examining what makes TikTok so addictive, “the infinite scroll and variable reward pattern of TikTok likely increase the addictive quality of the app as they may induce a flow-like state for users that is characterized by a high degree of focus and productivity at the task at hand, whether that be a game, one’s social media feed, or another virtual activity.” This addictive cycle can also be detrimental to attention spans, particularly in children. The Wall Street Journal reported in the article “This Was Supposed to be the Antidote for TikTok Brain. It’s Just as Bad,” that when children watch short-form videos, they learn to expect continual stimulation and fast-paced changes, which can cause problems when engaging in activities that require greater focus, such as reading.”

So, while companies like TikTok, Meta, and YouTube pushing short form content may be good for business, it is important users are aware of the potential consequences of consuming this content. People, especially teens, are very prone to this kind of addiction and may not even realize it.