Generation Z is increasingly watching “sludge” videos on TikTok — a type of viral video that features multiple clips all playing on a screen at the same time.
In the last year, the sludge video format has taken over TikTok and younger users find this overstimulating and chaotic video genre extremely comforting.
Am I old or is something very wrong here pic.twitter.com/6TccyljcFV
— Gillian Branstetter (@GBBranstetter) January 6, 2023
What is ‘Sludge’?
Sludge content is essentially a multiscreen TikTok video that is made up of several videos playing simultaneously.
Typically, the video’s audio will come from one original video — while one to five other videos play in smaller windows on top of the main clip.
Sludge videos will arrange several different kinds of unrelated clips together, many of which are popular on the internet.
These clips can include anything from a scene from a cartoon or television show, a video game play-through, an automated voice reading a confessional Reddit story time, ASMR footage of soap being cut, or a cooking video.
Instead of scrolling through individual posts via TikTok’s algorithm, a sludge video allows a viewer to watch these viral clips all squeezed onto the same screen at once.
Comfort in Chaos
The origins of sludge content are unclear. However, it could have something to do with trends that have shown Generation Z requiring a huge amount of stimulation to maintain their attention.
Last year, PetaPixel reported on an Ofcom study which showed that children, between the ages of three to 17 years old, are increasingly watching two clips simultaneously at the same time — via split-screening.
Split-screen social media posts allow children to watch more than one short-form video simultaneously, on a single screen, side-by-side, or stacked on top of one another. Sometimes the two split-screen videos watched by children and teens were related, such as influencers reacting and offering an opinion on real-world events. But in other cases, the two videos had no obvious connection.
In this study, children reported difficulties focusing on one screen-based activity at a time and found that it was actually easier to watch several videos at the same time.
And indeed, while sludge videos may seem overwhelming and disorientating, some younger users have praised the soothing effects of this genre’s overloaded visual experience.
In response to a TikTok video of at least 10 overlaying clips, one user was quoted as saying: “My mind feels whole.”
Some experts have suggested that the sludge video format offers an element of psychological escapism for younger users.
“It functions as something playful, that can take your mind off things and doesn’t require you to dive deep,” Andreas Schellewald, a doctoral researcher of social media at Goldsmiths, University of London, tells NBC News.
“You can sit there and watch things unfold in front of your eyes.”
A Single Video is Not Enough
According to a new report by Scientific American, the psychological effects of the new sludge video format is still understudied and it’s still too early to tell whether this media genre’s popularity will endure.
However, the publication reports that there are some indicators that our brain’s ability to process increasing amounts of information has been adapting, slowly, for some time.
Megan Moreno, an adolescent medicine physician who studies media and digital health at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, compares the evolution of online content with that of television shows.
She explains how early television 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. Today’s audiences are still able to keep up with increasingly complex information — and they even crave more.
Moreno tells Scientific American that social media trends such as sludge content also reflect the audience’s growing appetite for information — and some people want more from a single post.