Will Psychoanalysis Be Relevant to the TikTok Generation?

In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr makes the case that the digital age that emerged following the invention of the computer is a communication era strikingly different from the era of mass communication spawned by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 15th century. 

Whereas to get anywhere with a text printed on paper requires sustained and focused attention, this is not required when engaging with digital content. The reason is that such content is characterised by hyperlinks, searchability, and being created using "multimedia" - pages include text alongside video or audio streams. When we are online, we tend to skim and scan rather than carefully read. The effects of this crucial difference are far-reaching for our way of life, and we transition away from thinking of those with the ability to exercise single-minded focus - people who have excelled in traditional educational curricula - as deserving our highest praise.

The digital age is an unfolding period of human history. We do not know exactly where it is headed, but we are able to observe changes as they are occurring. For instance, the generation that grew up with YouTube became accustomed to the kinds of videos that dominate that site - videos with an average length of 12 minutes. Generation Z is absorbed by the video sharing platform TikTok, where 15 seconds is the standard duration for videos created using the app. 

At first glance, these generational shifts may raise doubts about the future of psychoanalysis, for the simple reason that patients must retain an interest in their analyses over a sufficiently long period of time in order to benefit. It is no good if interest is lost close to the beginning. Could it be that psychoanalysis will not be a viable treatment for future generations? If so, where might people look for psychological help?

One answer to these questions is that future generations will only be interested in short-term treatments like CBT. 

But this is not a very compelling answer. Even CBT requires sustained interest and attention to make a difference, particularly for those distressed to any significant degree: there are weekly sessions lasting nearly an hour, and there is daily homework to do in between sessions. If we are going to talk about the demise of psychoanalysis on the grounds of limited patience, we might as well also talk about the demise of many psychotherapies as we currently know them. 

I would argue that this sort of pessimism about the future of psychotherapy is misplaced. While it is true that TikTok videos, for example, are very short, the average user is thought to watch fifty-two minutes of these videos per day. That is about the duration of a typical psychotherapy session.

When it comes to psychoanalysis, in particular, the digital age's multitasking way of life can actually prepare people to engage in an analytic process. This is because what is most unique about psychoanalysis as a clinical method is its reliance on free association. 

In his paper titled "On Beginning the Treatment," Freud described the way he would start an analysis with a new patient. He would say something like:

“One more thing before you start. What you tell me must differ in one respect from an ordinary conversation. Ordinarily you rightly try to keep a connecting thread running through your remarks and you exclude any intrusive ideas that may occur to you and any side-issues, so as not to wander too far from the point. But in this case you must proceed differently. You will notice that as you relate things various thoughts will occur to you which you would like to put aside on the ground of certain criticisms and objections…. You must never give in to these criticisms, but must say it in spite of them - indeed, you must say it precisely because you feel an aversion to doing so.” 

In CBT, each session is goal-oriented and proceeds under the guidance of the therapist's "Socratic questioning," a method of looking for blind spots in the patient's reasoning which may ultimately lead to psychological symptoms. This method helps people to solve problems they experience owing to failures of rationality. It is a method that is well-suited to this end.

The method of free association is particularly well-suited to a different end - that of helping people address their problems that have to do with their desire. These are problems concerning what they have wanted in the past and what they might want in the future. A process of opening oneself up to new thoughts through free association is best for this task. Socratic questioning, with its emphasis on discovering irrational beliefs, would only inhibit the process. If we do not know what we want, it does not follow that this is because of any particular irrational beliefs we hold.

Free association is important to psychoanalysis, and it is important to addressing certain kinds of human problems. And when we think about it, the changes to our way of life brought on by the digital age are helping us to become more open to the method of free association. Users of digital platforms like TikTok move through the material they fancy without needing a connecting thread. They feel no need to make the experience into something serious or valuable, or into one which leads to something specific being "accomplished." And they seem to enjoy their digital wandering. They are signalling an underlying interest in free association as a pursuit.
Of course, we should not naively suppose that this online behaviour fully prepares people to do the work that goes along with being in analysis. Platforms like TikTok allow us to be entertained by disconnected threads of content produced by others. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, asks us to turn our attention inwards in order to become interested in the disparate threads of ideas occurring within our own minds.

Although making such a turn is a challenging achievement, we should not think that this challenge is unique to current and future generations of the digital age. The reality is that as human beings we have always faced obstacles to attending to our own minds given that there is so much going on around us in our environments. Still, we know that many have overcome these obstacles to engage in meaningful analyses, and we have every reason to expect that generations of the digital age will find ways to do so, too.


Freud, S. (1958). On beginning the treatment (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis I). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (pp. 121-144).

Kazantzis, N., Beck, J. S., Clark, D. A., Dobson, K. S., Hofmann, S. G., Leahy, R. L., & Wong, C. W. (2018). Socratic dialogue and guided discovery in cognitive behavioral therapy: A modified Delphi panel. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 11(2), 140-157.


Bradley Murray, DPhil, MEd, FIPA, is a psychoanalyst based in Toronto. He is the author of The Possibility of Culture: Pleasure and Moral Development in Kant's Aesthetics. He has taught in the philosophy department at the University of British Columbia and the psychology program at the University of Guelph-Humber. His research and writing focus on the history and philosophy of psychoanalysis and psychiatry, as well as issues at the intersection of psychoanalysis and digital culture.