When VaNessa Thompson wants to truly focus on doing homework for her doctoral classes at Oakland University near Detroit, she gets out her smartphone, props it on her desk, and starts streaming live video of herself on TikTok.
“People that follow me on TikTok, they’ll get a push notification, ‘VaNessa’s going live,’” she explains.
For the next two hours or so, she says she’ll do whatever reading or paper-writing she has due, occasionally stopping for a break to look at her phone, where text comments from viewers trickle in encouraging her or asking what she’s working on.
She’s all alone at home, except that she’s not. “It helps people create a community around studying,” she says.
Thompson is part of a trend of college and high school students who stream themselves studying on TikTok or YouTube, often using the hashtag #studywithme.
One key goal, she and others using the hashtag say, is to try to put social pressure on themselves to stay on task and keep up with studying for a set time period.
“It’s holding me accountable,” says Thompson, who has more than 13,000 followers on TikTok. “If I’m going live, I have to lock in for at least 30 minutes because it might take 10 minutes for people to log on to my stream — and if I’m not there once they find it, I’ve wasted their time and mine.”
But doesn’t doing a live broadcast to anyone online cause more distractions than benefit?
“I think of social media as sugar,” she says. “It’s part of a well-balanced diet, but it shouldn’t be all your diet.”
And it keeps her from doing anything else on her phone that might distract her, she explains, because she can’t close the app while maintaining the livestream.
She started the practice during COVID-19 lockdowns, when she couldn’t get to a library or coffee shop to work among other people as she had done in the past. “I’m an extrovert,” she says. But she’s found that she’s continued the practice even now that she could go to a library because she says she is more prone to social anxiety and wondering if people are looking at her when she is in person compared to when she streams herself on her phone … for all the world to see.
“I think that online disinhibition kicks into gear,” she says. “I don’t see you, but we know that we’re linked up at the exact same time.”
The practice is bigger than just homework. People these days are streaming other mundane daily activities live on social media, whether it’s cleaning their room or doing their professional work.
The concept even has roots in a clinical treatment for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. That practice is called “body doubling,” and it refers to having a partner watch you do a task that involves focus to keep you in the zone.
“A core symptom of ADHD is being distracted easily,” explains Michael Meinzer, director of the Young Adult and Adolescent ADHD Services Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Another symptom is difficulty completing tasks and following through.”
Meinzer says it’s possible that trying to body double using TikTok or YouTube could be “the next best thing” in some cases where someone else can’t be in the same room with you. But he wonders whether the virtual version can be as effective when there are fewer cues coming from the people online (for instance, you can’t see the faces of those watching you on a TikTok feed).
“We have what we call supervised study halls where students can come in and make a goal for themselves that in this hour I’m going to get this done,” he says. He says he hasn’t worked with students streaming live study sessions on TikTok, but that during the pandemic, his center tried holding study hall sessions on Zoom, yet had few takers. “People were Zoomed out at that point,” he adds.
Online Role Models
Isabel, an 18-year-old in England who goes by the TikTok name isabelthearcher, says that she studied live on TikTok every day in recent weeks when studying for finals at her secondary school (the equivalent of a high school in the U.S.). She asked not to use her full name.
“It helped me stay focused,” she says. “I’m definitely a master procrastinator.”
And she admits that setting boundaries, like how often she lets herself look at comments from viewers, is key. “When I first started it was so exciting, to the point where I wouldn’t be studying at some points,” she admits. And the comments aren’t always positive, with some criticizing the idea of livestreaming her studying or telling her she should go outside.
She says she learned about the practice during the pandemic, when she would watch her favorite YouTubers broadcast their study sessions on that platform. When one of those YouTubers, Jack Edwards, decided to go to Durham University and continued making videos from there, it motivated her to apply to that college as well.
For Thompson, at Oakland University, being a role model for her viewers is also part of the draw to livestreaming her study sessions.
“I’m about making higher ed accessible and achievable,” she says. “I also know me being me, with all the demographics that I check, that visibility is like, whoa.”
When she’s not in student mode, she works at her university as a program coordinator for its Center for Multicultural Initiatives.
She argues that colleges should use social media more to do outreach and meet students where they are, and to help students navigate the many challenges of college life.
“Our writing center does ‘writing Saturdays,’” she says, which invites anyone to join an online study group.
It’s on Zoom, though — not TikTok.