Have you ever tried to watch a cooking show, a Minecraft playthrough, a pleasing montage of a person cutting through kinetic sand and a video narrating a Reddit confessional—all at the same time? A new video format taking over TikTok and other social media platforms embraces this jam-packed visual experience.
More online creators are producing multiframe videos dubbed “sludge content,” or “overstimulation videos.” Such videos collage several different kinds of unrelated clips together, such as scenes from TV shows, video game playthroughs and soothing clips of pasta dough being rolled out. Instead of scrolling through individual posts of these videos, a viewer can now see them all squeezed onto the same screen at once. A sludge video is essentially a video of videos. Internet communities have cracked jokes and made memes about how sludge content is an extreme response to people’s growing need for more and more stimuli to completely fill their attention span.
“When you see stuff like sludge content, you don’t know where to look,” says content creator and science journalist Jessica Boddy. Some viewers may find this experience confusing or overwhelming, while others say that the content is pleasing and even addicting.
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TikTok is already known to foster addictive online behavior with its endless feed of short video posts curated by algorithms that quickly learn and adjust to user preferences. But sludge content is attracting users’ attention in a new way. Videos are chopped up and added to a metaphorical content buffet, creating a feast for the eyes and brain. Although the psychological effects of this new format are understudied, scientists say that previous research on social media and multitasking can offer some clues. YEAR CATFISH spoke with experts about how this new media phenomenon might impact the brain.
What is happening to the brain as it tries to process all the information in a sludge video?
Brain activity in response to sludge content hasn’t been studied directly, but experts say such content likely has similar effects on the brain as multitasking. Multiple studies provide strong evidence that it’s nearly impossible to truly multitask—to do or watch more than one thing at the same time. Yet most people still think they are multitasking while they work, study and, now, consume entertainment. The rise of “media multitasking” seems to have significant effects on the developing brain. A 2020 study found that attention and memory recall may worsen in young adults who engage in various digital media on multiple devices simultaneously, such as by watching a show, texting and checking social media at the same time. Sludge content appears to be a supercharged form of media multitasking.
Multitasking essentially fragments your attention into tiny nuggets. When your attention jumps between multiple activities or videos on a screen, you’re not able to fully comprehend or remember the information presented in any of the sources. This is because the brain has to switch back and forth to give each one attention, says Megan Moreno, an adolescent medicine physician who studies media and digital health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Over time, too much stimulation may be detrimental to your ability to concentrate on any one task. “We are in this world with lots of little micro interruptions,” Moreno says. “It is hard to piece together the stories, and it’s harder to retain them, because you have to do so much work to put them together.”
Is sludge content different from other types of media?
We know that seeing many things moving at once is exciting to the brain. TikTok is chaotic, with its stream of immediate, fast-moving content and curated “For You” page. Sludge content stacks chaos on top of chaos.
There are some indicators that our brain’s ability to process such information has been adapting, slowly, for some time. For example, Moreno compares the evolution of online content with that of television shows. Early TV series were often simple, primarily focusing on one character who faced a small conundrum that would be resolved by the end of the episode. In contrast, modern television shows offer multiple storylines and characters, along with flashbacks, flash-forwards and dream sequences. Audiences are still able to keep up with increasingly complex information—and they even crave more. Social media trends such as sludge content also reflect the audience’s growing appetite for information, Moreno says, and some people want more from a single post. It’s still too early to determine whether the sludge trend will stick around.
Why are creators making this type of content?
Creators aim to get as many people as possible to view videos and keep them watching for as long as possible. In February 2022 TikTok extended its watch time to 10 minutes and began to incentivize videos that were longer than a minute; the platform claims that longer videos might help creators reach more viewers and enable them to spend more time watching—or increase their “consumption duration.” This has caused creators to look for ways to get new users to stay on a single video for a longer time. “You want something to immediately be happening, whether that’s the content of the video itself or if it’s text coming on-screen with captions that zip in or move around,” Boddy says. “That’s what appears to work.”
Content producers have also found that videos that contain a bunch of little clips keep people engaged for longer periods, she adds. When sludge content pops up, it visually confuses people enough to stay and watch to figure out what’s happening, Boddy explains. “I feel like I almost get hypnotized into watching them,” she says.
Is sludge content helpful for some people psychologically?
There isn’t a lot of evidence about whether the videos are helpful or detrimental psychologically. Experiences also vary depending on the individual. There appear to be certain people who can get overstimulated by such content. People who are neurodivergent, for example, especially autistic people or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can feel burned-out and overwhelmed when they experience too many stimuli, such as the multiple video feeds in sludge content. But Yalda Uhls, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies how media affects children, says other people love being highly stimulated in this way because the content actually holds their attention more than single-video posts. In a conversation with Uhls, two of her students at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at U.C.L.A. both likened the content to “baby sensory videos for teenagers,” referring to videos that use a variety of shapes, colors, and movement and claim to enhance visual stimulation in developing brains. Sludge content also often includes both auditory and visual stimulation, which may also influence people’s engagement and attention.
How could this content affect young people?
It’s hard to say which age groups are most exposed to sludge content,
though a large percentage of TikTok’s users are between the ages of 12 and 24.
Researchers are still heavily debating sludge content’s effects on cognitive development, Moreno says. Some researchers hold that this could be too much stimulation for people with a developing brain. If young people watch sludge posts all day back-to-back, and each post consists of three videos playing at once on a single screen, that is a lot of sensory input. Consuming sludge content at this rate may cause them to need a huge amount of stimulation to maintain their attention.
Other researchers note that sludge content can provide environments that are ideal for normative dissociation, or putting a brain on autopilot mode. When someone focuses all their energy on the screen, they become unaware of their external environment. This normative dissociation can be soothing and allow for daydreaming, which can directly promote creativity and problem-solving skills.
What should future research on sludge content entail?
But Moreno says researching social media trends such as sludge content can help with understanding more broadly how society handles multitasking and large amounts of information. Sludge content may come and go, like any other online trend, but Moreno says it should still be monitored.
“I don’t know that we have a ton of studies that really tell us [how our brain handles large amounts of information at once] because, as you can imagine, it’s pretty hard to construct a study like that,” Moreno says. “If sludge content doesn’t continue as a trend, that tells us something also: that it’s not content that people are willing to spend their time on.”