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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

TikTok, Fortnight, and a Variable Ratio Of Positive Reinforcement (Social Media Series, Part 4 of 5)

I said in an earlier post that digital media is designed to offer on-demand stimulation to minds, and I wanted to say a little more about that. 

Behaviorally, people develop habits and patterns in part because certain things are reinforced–our brains like it, so we do more of it. The most effective reinforcement schedule is a variable ratio: rapid positive reinforcement at random intervals. An example of this is slot machines: You pull the lever, maybe you get money, maybe you don’t, but a random number of times later you win! Your brain then wants to keep going for the next payout, and makes you ignore the times you didn’t get a payout. This makes slot machines very effective at forming habits. 

Many video games, from Modern Warfare to Fortnight, employ this schedule of reinforcement.  So do things like TikTok, YouTube Shorts, and Instagram Reels. Just scrolling static social media like Bluesky, Twitter/X, or Facebook simulates it as well.  

You play a game of Modern Warfare or Fortnight, you win or you lose. Along the way, you get some stimulation and excitement. Eventually, you win one and it feels amazing! Behind the scenes, these games use matchmaking algorithms to artificially create this experience. You play, you lose, they match you up with a slightly easier opponent pool. You lose again, they go a notch easier, until you win. Then, it notches back up for a few games. 

You scroll through TikTok and you see a few boring videos, then BANG you get a really good one. Your brain loves it. You go back to looking through moderately stimulating ones, then BOOM you get another banger.  

You scroll through Facebook and get ad after ad, until you see something that sparks interest, rage, or joy. Then back to scrolling, looking for the next hit. 

These short, exciting doses of stimulation on a variable ratio schedule are designed to build habits. We need to be mindful of it, and guide our children (and ourselves!) through its use. I’m not saying these things are inherently bad–just inherently habit-forming. It’s up to us to police the habits to make sure they stay under our control. 

YouTube is slightly different, but similar. Even if you’re not scrolling endlessly through videos looking for a hit, you still have content that is built around stimulating engagement. They have a strong hook in the beginning, stay on point, and aim to be stimulating. Compare the appeal of a ten minute video summarizing the major plot points of a movie vs the appeal of sitting through a 2 hour movie for a youngster. If the YouTube video doesn’t grab you, you tap and get the next one or go find something else. Sitting down and investing an hour, or even two hours, in a movie (or a few days in a book) that you don’t know if you’ll like seems risky, boring, and inefficient by comparison. 

As a result, we may get children who may have trouble delaying gratification–they go for the instant dose of enjoyment now, rather than invest time and energy into something more significant. This isn’t always a problem, but it is something to keep an eye on. 

Especially with children whose brains are still developing or have complications like AD/HD, a lack of opportunity to learn certain skills can be a setback. On the other hand, we can’t expect a six year old to sit through the Lord of the Rings Trilogy or really dig into War and Peace. Some brains are going to get way more information and joy out of a 10 minute summary than they will ever get out of the 3-hour extended director’s cut of something, and that’s fine. We just have to make sure we’re considering if we are giving developing brains the opportunity to nurture necessary skills. 

Even things like playing outside, inviting a friend over, or playing with legos require a certain level of energy/attention/effort investment to get to the fun part. An unguided brain may well choose the sure-thing pleasure of YouTube over the unpredictable fun of playing in the backyard. If we think that playing outside is more valuable than YouTube (and sometimes it is) then we need to incentivize it and include that value in our conversations with our children about technology use. We may need to suggest some investment in a “healthy” or “valuable” activity before they can use technology for a quicker fix.  

Remember it’s always better to guide than to control. If we can have a good conversation that leads to mutually agreed-to limits, that’s ideal. When we can’t do that, it comes down to adults taking control and creating structure.  

Once children have all the information and skills, and they have demonstrated an ability to make informed decisions, and they are balancing values and functioning with stimulation needs and technology use, then they get to start having more control over their relationship with technology. Once they’re wrapping up high school and heading out to whatever is beyond, they’ll be on their own. By that point, they’ll be managing their own relationship with technology independently, and all we can do is hope we did a good job with all the conversations we had along the way.


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