Lost in the sludge: A new video format is taking over the internet


Santi Leon Torres, staff writer

I can’t help but cringe as I watch the teenage girl at the table next to me completely ignore the waiter trying to take her order. Her parents urge her to look up from her small, dimly-lit screen, only to be met with an icy glare, followed by some snarky retort muttered under her breath. “She’ll have the spaghetti,” the mother of the family says after a long pause.

I understand that it is rude to stare, but it is difficult to ignore a thirteen year old girl sporting heavy eye makeup and chunky leather boots– obvious indications of a chronic TikTok user. I wonder if that horribly awkward interaction wasn’t a byproduct of social inadequacy, but rather, the direct result of the environment that girl grew up in. Every day, a young person downloads the TikTok app, and everyday, TikTok sinks its claws into said person and drags them down to the trenches of internet addiction, becoming the ground for even more digitization. Cell phones aren’t just a nifty tool to better our lives, they’re the newest enhance- ment to human anatomy, acting as an easily maneuverable extension of oneself.

Every TikTok user has probably seen it before– some sort of video being displayed atop gameplay or a “satisfying” video. It’s obvious that these videos are meant to keep the viewer engaged, and prevent them from scrolling, generating income for the account where the video has been posted. To a curious onlooker, videos like that may seem harmless, but the effect they have on users’ mental state is detrimental. “Sludge content,” as it has come to be known, is a deliberate and rather sinister strategy used to manipulate social media users, and many of its effects are destructive to users’ mental health.

TikTok is already known to cater to people with shorter attention spans, so for people like junior Ella Emery, getting on TikTok and enjoying just a video or two simply isn’t an option.

“Having ADHD, it’s easier to watch short form content than to watch a Netflix movie because I would get side tracked during long movies or activities, and with TikTok, I don’t have the chance to get bored or under-stimulated due to the constantly changing content” Emery said.

The problem with sludge content is that it targets vulnerable individuals like Emery, who may struggle with paying attention to long-form video content, by stimulating as many senses as possible. The difference between sludge videos and traditional videos

is that since so many of viewers’ senses are being stimulated, the amount of dopamine supplied to their prefrontal cortex is exponentially larger. Since the dopamine dose is so large, it has an effect similar to opiates on the brain’s receptors, causing them to become desensitized, resulting in fatigue and a sense of monotony in the user’s life.

“When we use TikTok, we are essentially drugging ourselves,” journalist Megan McClintock said in her article, The Psychology of TikTok. “Unpredictable rewards cause more activity in reward regions of the brain than rewards we know are coming.”

Although the psychological effects may be dangerous, the social effects are far more dangerous. Because of the mindless nature in which this content is consumed, it is easier to manipulate users’ moral and political ideology. For example, in recent years, an influencer known as Andrew Tate found success in using sludge content to push his misogynistic rhetoric. He constructed a pyramid scheme where members were promised profit in exchange for reposting clips from his podcast. Since users knew the videos would perform better if they were reformatted with gameplay on half of the screen, these videos were promoted to the target audience for the video game portion, young boys. Indoctrinating young kids using these tactics is nothing short of evil and only sets a precedent for propaganda being spread on the platform.

Gradually, people are starting to rely on apps like TikTok to inform themselves of current events. There is nothing more dangerous than an ignorant, vulnerable society, and the promotion of sludge content is doing nothing but damage to not only account holder’s brains, but society as a whole.