Is TikTok digital crack cocaine? Speaking with Dr. Julie Albright, author of Left To Their Own Devices


Is TikTok digital crack cocaine?

In this latest episode of Tech First Draft I speak with author and professor Dr. Julie Albright, who recently published Left To Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping The American Dream.

  • See below for full video or links to the podcast
  • Keep scrolling for the full transcript

We chat about TikTok and the how modern social and entertainment platforms are changing our minds … and even the wiring of our brains. Some of the topics we cover:

  • Why is TikTok growing so quickly?
  • When you’re on TikTok — and other, similar social platforms — there’s an almost compulsive view and flick, view and flick as you scroll through bits of content. What’s happening in the brain while this is going on?
  • And … what does this do to people? Does it kill their attention span? Does it ruin them for anything requiring deep focus?
  • As a culture, we have a long history of crying wolf at the next new media platform, claiming it will ruin kids, ruin society, destroy education, kill the future workforce. Contextualize TikTok and other similar platforms for us within this history.
  • But are digital platforms fundamentally different than previous shifts?
  • How do you see people changing as we grow up with technology and media like this?
  • What are the good things that come out of this?

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You can also watch our interview on YouTube:

And, of course, you can get the full transcript right here:

Full transcript: Is TikTok digital crack cocaine?

(Be aware, this is a lightly-edited version of an automatic transcription technology. There may be some errors.)

John Koetsier: Hello, and welcome to Tech First Draft. We’re asking the question today: Is TikTok digital crack cocaine? I’m John Koetsier, and today we’re speaking with author and professor Dr. Julie Albright, who recently published “Left To Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream.” Julie, welcome. 

Dr. Julie Albright: Thank you for having me. 

John Koetsier: So pleased to have you with us today. Let’s start with TikTok. I mean it gained over 500 million new users just last year. Why is it growing so quickly? 

Dr. Julie Albright: Well, frankly, I think there’s been kind of a burnout going on on some of the platforms like Twitter or Facebook around all the politics. It’s gotten real angry, real negative. And I think that particularly young people, they started going away from that because who wants to deal with that on a 24/7 basis. And especially if you’re a young kid, you’re looking to have fun, getting into these heavy political discussions is really not what you want to spend your time doing as a kid. So a lot of young people started retreating over to Instagram which is more of a visual platform, more photos, more videos and things like that, which sort of went away from all the politics. And then TikTok just took off which is mainly, for those that haven’t seen it yet, it’s a videocentric platform and it’s combined with music, I would say it’s sort of a music first platform.  

John Koetsier: Mmhmm. Came out of right? I mean the company acquired and rebranded as TikTok. I told you this as we were just prepping for the show, when you’re on TikTok and maybe some other similar social platforms, it’s almost compulsive, right?

You view, flick to the next, view, flick as you scroll through bits of content. I had to get into TikTok as we chatted for some research that I was doing, and next thing I know I look up and an hour had gone away. Talk to us a little bit about the science here. What’s happening in the brain while this is going on?

Dr. Julie Albright: Yeah. Isn’t that the case? I think that it’s really interesting and these platforms are trying to bake in behavioral reinforcement. And if you think about something that’s very addictive, something that you want to keep doing again and again, the classic example is the Las Vegas slot machine.

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dr. Julie Albright: You pull the handle, you push a button, ding, ding, ding, ding, you know it’s ‘yeah I won!’… lights are going ding, ding ding, ding. And the the crazy thing is when people win they don’t say ‘let me have these coins or chips or whatever, this ticket they get and let me quit now.’ They say ‘maybe I can wait again’ right?

And then they ding, ding and then ‘awww’ and then ding ‘aw,’ and ding, ding, ding ‘yay!’

So that’s called in psychological terms that’s called random reinforcement. It means sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s how these platforms are designed. When you’re scrolling, let’s say you’re on Instagram ‘oh!’ sometimes you see a photo or something that’s delightful and it catches your attention. ‘Oh!’ and you get that little dopamine hit in the brain and it’s in the pleasure center of the brain. So you want to keep scrolling and then you see something that’s kind of boring, not too interesting, I’ve seen that, and then ‘oh!’ yeah, there’s that hit again, and that’s random reinforcement, just like the slot machine.

It’s the identical mechanism, even to the scrolling. If you think about it, that’s what those things are doing, you’re scrolling along and then ding, ding, ding, you won!… and that’s how these platforms are designed. They’re exactly like a slot machine. Well the one thing we know is slot machines are addictive. We know there’s a gambling addiction, right? But we don’t often talk about how our devices and these platforms and these apps do have these same addictive qualities baked into them.

So when you look at TikTok, it’s interesting because it is a scroll but they’ve actually done something new. I want to say, in some ways, and they have the vertical scroll which is what you have on Facebook, for example, you’re scrolling up on the newsfeed, but what this does is if you stop on the video and you like that video now it will restart that video. So in a sense, you’ve got a horizontal scroll going on pleasurable content, and you also have a vertical scroll going, both. So that’s a little bit different. So let’s say you stop on something and you watch it, it’ll then auto-start again on that horizontal scroll.

And you may see some dance, or some scene of nature, or some emotional content, and you see it two, three times. And if you look in the contents, people who will say ‘I watched this video way too many times.’ So it’ll just auto-load and you’ll just be in this pleasurable dopamine state, carried away. It’s almost hypnotic, you’ll keep watching and watching. And then if you want to scroll up there you go on the traditional scroll again to the next ‘oh!’ and there goes that dopamine hit again. So they’ve kind of got you on the vertical scroll as per Facebook or as per Instagram or your Twitter, but they’ve also got this auto-scroll going on the horizontal that I think almost intensifies that draw-you-in, because they already know they’ve got you on a video that you like. Let’s see it again, let’s watch it three or four times. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, exactly and as you do that, it learns about you. It learns what you like, it can feed you more of that stuff as you like it or share it. It does more of those things.

I mean, I’m trying to remember Psychology 101, way back in the dim mists of time, I seem to remember rats and they had heroin or cocaine, I forget what it was, you probably remember the experiment, and they would preferentially go to that to the extent that I think they starved themselves or something like that, is that accurate?

Dr. Julie Albright: Yeah, yeah that’s it. And so that’s part of what happens, and those studies are all based on random reinforcement and you just keep on pushing that button to get that hit. And that’s exactly what these apps are doing. And as you’ve mentioned, and others have mentioned, you can start looking at TikTok and three or four hours have gone by because, well, let me just look at one more. 

And for those of you tuned in that really haven’t experienced the platform, you might want to check it out, but the videos are short, they’re maybe 15 seconds or something like that, 15-20 seconds. They’re short videos and so it’s just a quick, you know, it’s almost like a little tasting menu of fabulous… we’re trying this and trying that, and then here’s the next one. And that’s the other clever thing about TikTok. It’s always new, it’s always different, and it’s not based upon following accounts as much as Facebook. It’s just based on the quality of the content. And the other thing is I’ve understood that they have a very sophisticated way of presenting that content.

There’s a page called ‘For You’ and there’s levels of review of the content. So if so many people not only view the content, which is interesting, they’re also looking at replays like how many times did you loop that little video if you watched it three, four or five times, that’s going to knock that up a little bit. How many people saw it, how many people shared it outside of, you can share it to social media. So all those factors go into the algorithm and that’ll boost it up and show it to more people. And then again, there’s a second level review and that’ll boost it up. So the content that comes at you on that For You page is content that’s already been proven to be liked, shared, rewatched multiple times, which are indicators that it’s probably interesting content. 

John Koetsier: It’s kind of a genius move on their part because one of the challenges of replacing Facebook as a social network is that that the social graph doesn’t come along with you to another platform and you lose that connectivity.

Dr. Julie Albright: Right.

John Koetsier: And this is just changing the game to not require a social graph as much and just give you something that you enjoy watching, enjoy interacting with. Let’s talk a little bit about attention span and of course we can get into the old fuddy duddy thing here, you know, the new thing is obviously awful right?

But let’s talk about the attention span of what it does to people when they’re looking at these things that are 10 seconds long, whether it’s Instagram, whether it’s TikTok, whether it’s other media as well. And flipping, flipping, flipping… what impact does that have on people’s brains? What impact does that have on their abilities in other areas, whether that’s school, your students at university (USC) or even work? 

Dr. Julie Albright: Right. Well, there’s something happening that I explore in the book… values changing, behaviors changing. You know, our brains are changing based on this interaction with digital technologies and one of these is time compression. So it’s this idea that our expectation of how quickly things happen are changing.

Our attention spans are lowering. So the idea that you have to take focused attention to read into a book or really think deeply and things like that, it’s harder for people to do that, that are really immersed in these digital technologies. So that becomes very difficult. And I think also attention span in terms of patience for things.

One of the stories in the book that I explored was a fellow who wanted to revisit some of the favorite movies when he was a kid and his son’s going into college. And one of the movies they revisited was 2001: A Space Odyssey I don’t know if you remember that movie. And when he was a kid that seemed very cutting edge and futuristic and exciting, and wow, this is amazing and gripping. And so he wants to watch it with his son and share that moment and that excitement with his son. So they are watching the film and it’s starting and if you remember the beginning, it’s like… 

John Koetsier: It’s a half an hour of no talking! 

Dr. Julie Albright: Yeah, these apes. And it’s kinda like what it shows is man has discovered tools and he’s hitting something. And so it’s like an ape that’s going to become a man. And that’s that moment of discovering a tool. And it’s interesting, but the fella turned to his son and said ‘well, what do you think?’ And he’s all excited, reliving the moment, and his son goes ‘Dad, it’s been 11 minutes and they’re still apes.’ At that moment my friend goes… it recalibrated in my friend’s mind like, wait a minute, it has been 11 minutes and it’s still apes. 

So this idea that you know what seemed gripping and interesting, and it made my friend relook at some of the other films, and he was talking about how in some of these early Ocean’s films and all that, the everyday scene, the setup for the movie, were like 30 minutes long. And he said now you’re right into the car chase and right into it. And he said it seems now boring and pedantic and plodding what seemed interesting back in the 70s or 80s or whatever it would be. So I think that the perception of the pace of life is shortened and the pace of change as well.

So people expect things to happen quicker. I had another student in mind, another example, say ‘well, I’m trying to be a songwriter, but if I’m not successful in three months, I’m thinking about wanting to do something else.’ Three months!  

John Koetsier: Hahaha, never mind 10,000 hours. 

Dr. Julie Albright: I said, it could take three years. I said, ‘honey, you know, three months, that’s not nearly anything to think if you’re going to be successful in a career, you may as well give up now if you’re only going to give yourself three months to get there.’ But that’s the mindset. See, three months seems like an eon. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dr. Julie Albright: At USC, a professor friend, remember they used to say what’s your five year plan? So he says to the students, and he’s 70 something, he said ‘well, now what’s your five year plan?’ And the students looked at him like he was insane. Five year plan? What are you talking about, that’s like an eon! And they couldn’t even conceptualize a five year plan. So that just shows you right there that this time horizon has really shortened as a result of the constant quick churn of digital content. And so the horizon line is really moved towards you. And the five year plan is out of sight, out of mind at this point. 

John Koetsier: Exactly, it’s pretty interesting. I did try and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey with my 16 year old son, and he was like ‘This is the worst movie ever. This is the worst movie in the history of the world. When is something going to happen?’

Dr. Julie Albright: Yeah, nothing’s happening. Let’s get this going. And it’s funny because now if you look at it through that lens you kind of see that too. That scene by the way, the opening with the apes, that went on for 11 minutes. 

John Koetsier: Yes. 

Dr. Julie Albright: I mean, if you think about that now, it’s like that is an eon. And imagine when you’ve got users who are used to 15 second videos and here’s another step that’ll get you… young folks, if a video doesn’t load up on a website or something in two seconds, they’re onto the next thing. Well that’s called latency in computer terms, the idea that you have to wait is latency, and so I call this the desire for a no-latency life. Yeah, they want it right now. And if there’s latency in anything, then off to the next thing.

John Koetsier: What’s the challenge with that, and you pointed out correctly that it’s not just kids who are impacted by this, that the example of the person you talked about watching that movie again, he felt the same way. And if you and I go back and maybe we watch movies even from before our time, 40s movies, 50s movies, black and white movies, and you’re just ‘when is something going to happen?’ You know, it takes forever. And I’m wondering what the impact of that is. Because there are things that we need to learn that take time, whether it’s mathematics, whether it’s concepts in psychology, whether it’s concepts in business or technology, other things. There are things that we need to learn that you need a foundation of knowledge.

You need to build on that foundation of knowledge. You need to understand some difficult concepts and work hard to figure those out and use those and apply those. Can people context switch, and switch into a mode where they can give something focused attention? Or does this have longterm impacts on how they act and react in all contexts?

Dr. Julie Albright: Well, I think there’s two parts to this. One is our habits or our ways of thinking about what we’re doing. But the second is, and this is kind of perhaps even more concerning, is the fact that now we have a group growing up now as digital natives and particularly younger people. But what you’ve got now is babies, infants who are growing up in a world of mobility. So the idea that they have iPads and phones and things. They’re growing up in bassinets with an iPad, affixed over their heads, or with a phone or working an iPad before they’re acquiring language. So what that’s doing is rewiring their neuropathways in their brains.

They are going to think differently than you do. So this idea that babies are going to have a different experience in terms of, again, the pace of information, the pace in which things happen. And I think fast forwarding we have a real mental health crisis going on amongst young people now. And I think part of that becomes, you know, it takes a long time to become successful.

As you’re mentioning, it takes a long time to become a master of something, to acquire that knowledge and that mastery, whether you’re going to be a doctor or you’re going to be a plumber or whatever it is, it takes a long time to learn your skillset and to be an expert at something. And I think that somehow we have to get that message across to young people that you have to give yourself time to develop, to become that master, to have the experience. 

Here’s another example that’ll just show you in the workforce. Now, digital natives think they should have a promotion within the first year. 

John Koetsier: Yes.

Dr. Julie Albright: And a lot of them think they should be like a senior… I had a senior vice president of Huawei come into my class. Student popped up her hand and said, well, they’re just going to graduate college, and pops up her hand and said ‘well now how do I start out at your level?’ You know, he was about 62 years old. He looked like we’d slapped him in the face, like what do you mean she wants to start at senior VP of this global multinational company, and there was no irony or humor. She thought, well, why aren’t I starting at your level?

And he looked like this and he was trying to be polite. He said, well, you know, how’s he going to answer this? He’s in front of a class that he doesn’t know, he’s not a little conversation, and he says, well, you know, you have to have something to bring to the table. You have to have some experience.

Another kid pops his hand up and says ‘well, now how do I get that experience? Can I just read a book or something?’ And these kids were not kidding. And it was, I was like ‘I am so sorry’ afterwards. I couldn’t believe it. But that’s the thinking. Can I just watch a YouTube video or something? So this idea that it takes time to learn, I think we have to get that message across so people don’t become hopeless is my point.

I’m sharing some funny stories, but hope is on the horizon. And if you cut the horizon off, you see you’re stuck in this churning now, and if now does look really good, well then, you know, maybe I’m going to just check out… 

John Koetsier: Absolutely. 

Dr. Julie Albright: The whole factor of the future has been cut off for a lot of these young people and we need to reassert the future.

John Koetsier: Super interesting point. And yet you can see where some of them are coming from, from some extent. We can learn so much more than we could before. YouTube does teach us a lot of things. There are courses online from so many universities that you can check out. And so there are ways of, in some sense, short circuiting the process.

Dr. Julie Albright: Correct.

John Koetsier: But there’s also some of these softer skills, people skills, management leadership skills, even personal development skills that do take some time. And it’s not just about taking a chunk of knowledge and inserting it in your brain. 

Dr. Julie Albright: Right, which people will hope. Yeah, and that’s another thing, a new study came out that said that teenagers are more likely to be talking to somebody over a device than they are talking face to face. During the course of an average day 65% teenagers are more likely to be talking through a mediated form of communication, and when they go out into the workforce, you’re suddenly going to have some, as you’re mentioning, social skill deficits. 

Some of my students, I had them call up a guy from a major auto manufacturer to do a project. And I said ‘Hey, talk to this guy, I work at a project’ you know, and the guy seemed great. I talked to him for about half an hour on the phone, funny guy. Next week I come to class, I said ‘Hey, how, how’d the call go?’ Not very good. ‘Well, what happened?’ And they go ‘There was an awkward silence.’ What awkward silence?

And I was racking my brain. Did I hear an awkward silence? They called this guy up and said nothing. They just sat there. So I was like oh my gosh. So their thing is they haven’t had experience talking on the phone. How do you break the ice with somebody you don’t know? How do you make a cold call? How do you start a conversation and things like that. And so my brother came in and gave them a one-on-one on breaking the ice with a new client. 

John Koetsier: Nice.

Dr. Julie Albright: My point is they’re not dumb. But if you look at the stats, about 90% of the time when the iPhone came out, it was used for making phone calls and 10% was using apps.

Well, now it’s 90% of the time using apps and only 10% of the time actually making phone calls. So they don’t have the experience with face to face without a mediated device there or with phone calls and things like that. So there’s a skills deficit emerging. 

John Koetsier: Super interesting. At least that person made the call. That’s probably a big step right there. Just picking up a phone and making a call is really challenging. 

Dr. Julie Albright: On my part, I didn’t think of the fact, otherwise I would’ve primed them for what to do and how to strategize the call. Didn’t occur to me that they wouldn’t know how to make a phone call, but this is what we’re living in now. So now, you have to step back and make some of those interpersonal skills more clear, the path more clear. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Surely this rewiring of the human brain has some good impacts as well. It has some good effects as well. Maybe I’m wrong. What have you seen in your research that people are better at, or perform better at when they grow up this way?

Dr. Julie Albright: Right. Well, I think that people are able to… the world’s become much smaller. So I think in some ways we can understand other people better. And in fact millennials are most likely now to consider themselves citizens of the world. So this idea that the world’s become a little smaller. I mean, this started with CNN in the 24-hour news cycle where you could see a war going on as it was happening across the world, and it suddenly became more real. Well, now young folks are able to have friends and there’s these networks that enable them to travel, things like couch surfing they can go crash on somebody’s couch or on a floor or somewhere with someone, and things like that Workaway where they can go work for other people.

So there’s these networks available that allow people to have more worldly, global experiences in a way to have friends and keep friends over long spans of time and place. And I think that it’s also enabled distant families to kind of almost get to know each other better. And you can see that cousin across the country and what they’re doing and their hobbies and things, and keep in touch in a way, long distance phone calls were expensive, you know before that, letter writing so slow.

You’d have a connection that it would, you know the span of time of that would be long. Now we can just text somebody anywhere in the world. It’s really quite amazing if you think about that. 

John Koetsier: It really is. It’s transformative. I mean, FaceTiming or WhatsApping somebody. It’s a really big, big, big deal.

I know we need to wrap this up. You’ve got things to go, students to teach, boards to run, all those other things. Anything else? What have I not asked you maybe that I should have? 

Dr. Julie Albright: Well, I think that we started talking about TikTok, and I think just sort of wrapping up on that, I think that’s really the platform to watch for people. It’s on the move, it was the number one most downloaded app on Apple. It’s young, in the US most of the users are 16 to 24, globally under 30. So for companies and brands and people to kind of keep an eye on it and think about how they might want to integrate that into their business. It’s a very interesting platform in a lot of ways. 

John Koetsier: Excellent, excellent. I can’t thank you enough. This has been so wonderful to have you on the show. We’ve been connected for a long time. Really enjoy seeing all that you’re doing. You’re having tremendous success with the book. You’re traveling all over the world, signing and talking and influencing, and it’s wonderful to see. I wish you all the success in the world.

Dr. Julie Albright: Thank you so much. I thank you for the wonderful conversation. 

John Koetsier: Yeah, absolutely. For everybody else, thanks for joining us on Tech First Draft. Whatever platform you’re on, please like, subscribe, share, comment, and if you’re on the podcast later on, please rate and review it. Thanks so much. Until next time, this is John Koetsier with Tech First Draft.