Anyone who has ever tried to choose a brand of toothpaste knows that having more options isn’t always a good thing. Research shows that may apply to the posts queued on your feed, too. Consuming a steady stream of unrelated data chunks may be harming your attention span.
The top social media platforms today — such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — are built upon fundamentally similar models. Based on who you’re following and your previous activity, an algorithm lists thumbnails of posts most likely to catch your interest. You scroll down the page, checking out each snippet until something hooks you enough to click it and read, view or watch the full post.
The problem lies in all that scrolling. As your eye jumps from “YetiXMothman Romance Novella” to “Build Your Own Robot With Cheerios”, your brain is doing a quick switch between two very different topics. Twitter is designed for this type of scrolling— the 140 character limit won’t waste your time, enabling you to quickly get the point and move on to the next, and the next and the next. Scrolling through posts is super rewarding because you never have time to be bored before the next new thing comes along. Encountering new things triggers a hit of dopamine, the pleasure hormone, in your brain. The more new things you’re seeing, the happier you’ll be.
Some scientists say the human love for novelty may be an evolutionary adaptation to allow us to maximize the benefits of our ancestral environment. Like many human traits, this rewarding activity has been cranked up to excessive heights in the modern age. Just as refined sugar takes advantage of our instinct to grab calorie-rich foods, social media takes advantage of the way our minds work to keep us racking up the hours of screen time. Browsing SNS is a habit-forming activity; those thought patterns can follow us into the “real” world.
Making a habit of briskly scrolling through posts negatively impacts your ability to pay attention to a single subject for long periods of time. Whether it’s a boring class period or a print copy of a book you’re reading, the reason you’re so tempted to glance at your phone all the time may be because you’re training yourself to be better at flitting among different topics than staying focused on just one. Zooming around from chatrooms to memes to news articles feels exciting, but how efficient is it really?
As it turns out, studies show that multitasking is often less effective than good old-fashioned mono-tasking. Your memory is worse overall while you’re distracted by multiple tasks, and you lose valuable time adjusting between tasks. In contrast, when you spend an extended period of time focusing on a single task, your work will be quality and you won’t break your train of thought, enabling you to make deeper mental connections and reach solid conclusions. It might feel like a sacrifice to carve out a big piece of time from your day — breaking it up into smaller pieces is easier, no doubt. But without pushing yourself too hard, you need to give yourself space to focus on the matter at hand without distractions, or you’ll never be performing at your best.
Not only is social media often the culprit for breaking that extended focus to check notifications, the very act of spending time on social media can shape your thinking, putting you in the habit of jumping from topic to topic and struggling to pay steady attention. Does that mean that all social media is evil? No way. I think the creation of a universal system to facilitate communication is incredibly important and valuable to the world.
What I have a problem with is the behavior of the people currently in charge of hot social media platforms and apps, who put their annual ad revenue before the health and productivity of their users. By creating buckets of clever techniques and new features to keep you hooked and throwing away your time, social media platforms prove they care less about their content creators and consumers than making a profit and boosting their user counts sky-high. A website designed to stroke the pleasure centers in your brain is not a website honestly dedicated to promoting art, innovation or the truth. The people running these sites should consider putting their users first by restructuring their sites to promote healthier usage.
You can take back your time and attention without going cold turkey on SNS. The first thing to remember is that your time is your own. Don’t let the pressure to be constantly available to every rando distract from your education. Whatever’s most important to you— your phone and social media accounts should help serve that purpose. If they don’t, you should save your precious time and cut back. Your attention span will thank you!