Fellow human beings, it’s time we seriously consider immunizing our families against an infectious and invasive life form called TikTok — as well as its many imitators, including YouTube Shorts and Instagram/Facebook Reels, and a bunch of others you’ve probably never heard of, such as Triller, Byte and Clash.

For some of you, this immunization may come a bit too late. Maybe you’ve already been down the rabbit hole enough that you notice your hand trembling in withdrawal if you spend a few hours without getting a digital dopamine spike.

Yet for others, this vaccination campaign might be just right. And if you’re a grandparent or the parent of teens, it should probably be mandatory — especially if you want to know what the young people you love are doing every day. Eighty percent of teens use social media every day, with the average teen spending more time looking at TikTok videos than even YouTube.

Some fair warning, though, before you proceed: Many of these platforms are introducing new users (young or old) to sexualized videos, whether or not they are looking for them. In Heather Kelly’s powerful Washington Post article “They came to TikTok for fun. They got stuck with sexualized videos,” she summarizes her findings: “Content designed to get the most engagement, including suggestive clips of women or things meant to shock, are regularly shown to new users. And people who have been on the apps longer sometimes find themselves unable to get the sexual videos out of their automated feeds, despite never liking them or following those creators.”

So with that word of caution, let’s begin the inoculation.

On your next free evening or scheduled family time, open up your browser and pull up YouTube Shorts or TikTok, with a partner if possible. Then take a deep breath, and check out what comes up — spend 10-15 minutes scrolling through some of the short videos together (skipping anything that makes you uncomfortable).  

Then close the computer and consider a few questions, starting with: Why would anyone who was exposed to a steady stream of slick, eye-catching productions like this ever want to read a book?

I ask this question seriously. What would be the motive for anyone immersed in TikTok-like content, to consciously spend time with words on a page — without pictures — that asks the brain to actively engage and is much less “entertaining” than what’s served up on their phone?

There are plenty of good reasons to do so, of course, but our culture is not doing a good job of articulating them. As a teen once said to me, explaining why he didn’t bother reading books: “If it’s really that good, they’ll make it into a movie.”

What they’re missing

Many adults know from experience what Stephen King once described as the “uniquely portable magic” of books, how they open up new vistas and grand adventures even better than the dramatic visualizations themselves. “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away,” wrote the poet Emily Dickinson. And the novelist George R.R. Martin argues that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” … yet someone “who never reads lives only one.” 

I’ll never forget the comfort of being able to escape the teenage drama of high school by absorbing myself in Alexandre Dumas’ mesmerizing tales, including “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” 

Anyone who’s ever lost themselves in a novel knows the same thrill. But all the best statistics confirm that this is happening far less frequently for all ages. According to the American Psychological Association, in 2016, 1 of every 3 12th graders had not read a book for pleasure in a year (triple what teens said in the 1970s) — with 23% of American adults saying the same thing in 2021, according to Pew Research Center.

What does that steep decline mean for our collective ability to think through difficult questions, or even consider someone else’s perspective? Abraham Lincoln once spoke of the basic humility cultivated by a practice of reading, suggesting that “books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren’t very new after all.” 

Similarly, Albert Einstein said, “Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.” 

You would think French philosopher Voltaire was also speaking about our day when he lamented “how much stupid stuff the vulgar herd is content to swallow every day”— even when they are surrounded by an “enormous quantity of books.”

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‘Books are dumb’

One way to ensure that our thinking isn’t being overly shaped and skewed by popular dogmas is simply to read things that are old — an impulse in direct conflict with the news-driven “worship of the new” that Allyson Flake Matsoso describes in her essay for Public Square.

All this underscores the urgency of the many warnings about our own digital diet. “If most of the information you get comes from social or other media,” President Russell Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in 2021, our “ability to hear the (quiet) whisperings” of the divine would be “diminished.” 

But can you blame people for being distracted when there is so much incendiary talk and scintillating drama beckoning from the palm of our hands? No wonder people have so little patience with anything else. FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, accused of fraud, said in a glowing profile prior to his downfall, “I think, if you wrote a book, you (messed) up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”

Reflecting on Bankman-Fried’s fall from grace, and the public unraveling of Sean McElwee and Ye (formerly Kanye West), Thomas Chatterton Williams noted in The Atlantic one trend that unites all three men: a disdain for reading.

As they’ve said: “Books are dumb” (McElwee); “I am not a fan of books … I am a proud non-reader of books” (Ye) and “I’m very skeptical of books” and would “never” read one (Bankman-Fried).

Maybe reading one (or lots of them) could have been pivotal in stabilizing these once promising lives now in free-fall? And maybe that’s why the absence of such mental sustenance — and whatever else is filling the void — needs our urgent attention.  

All this brings to mind the late Neil Postman’s 1985 classic “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in which he famously argued we were being oppressed by our addiction to amusement far more than state violence. He went on to suggest that a particular medium can only sustain a particular level of ideas.

Thirteen years ago, Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist because of how effectively the text summarized research showing how the internet was socializing our thinking to become collectively more superficial and shallow. Even before TikTok emerged, the measurable effects of online socialization were clear and demonstrable.      

But do we really need research to tell us that? When was the last time you spent hours (or even a single hour) immersed in a serious text? Even some fellow mindfulness teachers (whose full-time job is to teach people to pay attention) confess to me they haven’t read a full book in years. 

If that’s true for people who came of age before the internet, imagine what it’s like for the young people who open up a dense college or scriptural text after a few hours of social media, texting and video streaming or gaming. Can we really expect people to suddenly be able to relish a complicated text when “you’ve been used to spending most of your time switching between one digital activity and another in a matter of seconds,” as psychology professor Jean Twenge puts it.

No way. Much like the porn-saturated brain soon becomes unable to feel attraction to a real human body, don’t be surprised if a TikTok-soaked brain becomes averse to real mental nutrients.  

What your family can do

I grew up with parents that introduced me at an early age to Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart in films where each scene stayed fixed on a single conversation, sometimes for a number of minutes. But my little brothers grew up in the “Bourne Identity” era where movies move so much faster — with so many different angles in just a few seconds — and they struggle to bring themselves to watch a black-and-white movie.  

If we’re honest, all of our attention spans have gotten shorter. But for young people especially, Twenge suggests, “There’s no lack of intelligence among young people, but they do have less experience focusing for longer periods of time and reading long-form text.” 

The good news is that attention can be socialized in a better direction. In mindfulness classes for teens, I’ve seen firsthand how attentiveness can improve with just a few weeks of focused practice.  

If reading is among the most universal of mindfulness practices, could it be time for all of us to “teach ourselves to read” once more?

On a whim, I bought my boys the entire Roald Dahl collection last year — and couldn’t believe how they wolfed them down, like a plate of brownies. We still love a good movie night as a family. But in recent years, my wife and I have been consciously trying to move our family culture toward reading — building in 30 minutes for us to read to our children each evening, followed by plenty of time for them to read in bed, with their own night lights. Monique and I are also trying to begin and finish the day by reading alone and then together, as the perfect book-ends to the chaos in between. And for fun outings, we like to drop by thrift book stores and let the boys pick out a book or two.   

“Show me a family of readers,” said Napoléon Bonaparte, “and I will show you the people who move the world.”

If you’re tired of the digital conquest of your own mind and home, join the reading rebellion. Take control of your own attention and enjoy again the sweet thrill of something way better than Big Tech can ever offer.   

Jacob Hess is an editor at Public Square Magazine and a former board member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”