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  • Writer's pictureAdriana Leos

Attention spans are getting shorter and it's because of social media

You may recall the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, who disclosed tens of thousands of documents of Facebook's own research reports to Congress and later testified before the Senate Commerce Committee. In this hearing, she came forward with several internal reports and documents from Facebook, indicating that the company knows that their platforms (particularly Instagram) have a serious negative harm on mental health, especially on a significant number of teens and children.

She also discussed that Facebook has studied a pattern that they call "problematic use," also known as addiction.

According to Haugen, "problematic use" is defined as, "something that occurs when users cannot control their use even when it hurts their health, schoolwork, or other aspects of their lives." Research from these reports also show that 5-6% of teens have the self-awareness to admit to this.

And with the current proliferation of various social media platforms, the little attention span that we are hanging onto is heavily being competed for.

Constantly, we are shown advertisements at an extensive rate. With every two Instagram stories is one advertisement and the first thing that plays when you first open TikTok or a YouTube video is an advertisement.

And it makes sense as ads are placed where advertisers and marketers observe and notice trends. And so therefore, as users of the platforms, we set this tone. If ads are bombarding these social media platforms, it's because that's where our attention lies.

But why then is so much of our attention being directed towards social media and the online space?

Graphic of a message notification icon that states, 'attention please!'

Well, it is no secret how some algorithms are designed - with an addictive nature so that big corps can profit from the users' excessive use (or addictive behaviors) by understanding our habits, collecting our data, and selling our information.

A great analogy from Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google, who also coined the term, "human downgrading," a term that suggests that computers and the digital space are negatively impacting our lives and transforming our lives for the worse. In a 2020 Netflix documentary titled, "The Social Dilemma," Harris makes the comparison or the parallel of social media and slot machines in a casino.

Regarding the 'pull to refresh' feature, Harris states, "each time you're swiping down [on a social media platform] it's like a slot machine, you don't know what's coming next" (The Social Dilemma Documentary, 2020).

It's a form of Operant Conditioning. A term you might be familiar with from a study conducted by psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1938; essentially it explains our conditioned associations of a certain behavior (pulling the lever on the slot machine) and an associated consequence or the possible reward (cash prize).

Like slot machines, social media platforms can be described in similar ways. We have been conditioned to certain behaviors and a vast majority of us have become addicted. Read more in Tristan Harris' article, How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind -- from a Magician and and Google Design Ethicist.

Additionally, according to a research study and article titled, "The 'online brain': how the Internet may be changing our cognition," smartphones (and social media) have introduced a habitual "checking" behavior. These behaviors or habits are from the reinforcement from "information rewards" that release dopamine (the feel-good hormone) each time we receive a notification.

We continue to "check" our devices for notifications because the feeling that we receive from the dopamine release leaves us wanting more which then perpetuates the addictive behavioral patterns.

Furthermore, in another research study from the same article, "The 'online brain': how the Internet may be changing our cognition," researchers measured participants' 'media multi-tasking' between different types of online content while using just one device (personal laptops)."

'Media multi-tasking' is a term to describe the behavioral pattern of our constant interaction with multiple inputs or mediums, (such as various social media platforms or apps), simultaneously, but "only on a shallow level."

Researchers in this study found that, "switches occurred as frequently as every 19 seconds, with 75% of all on-screen content being viewed for less than one minute."

One can then fairly assume that this means that there is a large majority of people who do not consume content for more than a mere sixty seconds.

Slowly, we are training or rewiring the neural pathways in our brains to only be able to withstand consuming approximately 30 seconds or less of a piece of content before we get bored and continue to scroll.

In the study, "The 'online brain': how the Internet may be changing our cognition," the main hypothesis on how the internet impacts our attention span or "attentional capacities" is through the constant notifications, "providing a limitless stream of different forms of digital media."

Findings from the study do in fact state that individuals who "engage in frequent and extensive media multi-tasking in their day-to-day lives perform worse in various cognitive tasks than those who do not, particularly for sustained attention."

And so, it's no wonder that our attention spans are in fact getting shorter.

We live in a society of mass consumption. If it isn't the over-consumption through products for things like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it's the immense amount of content that we consume on a daily basis. And this ranges anywhere from emails, text messages, DMs on Instagram, content on TikTok, Twitter, or any other social media platform or app, to Netflix, movies, and even podcasts.

We are constantly bombarded with stimuli which therefore means we are constantly consuming content.

So... what do we do?

The first step is to become aware of your social media use.

In order to become intentional about how to use social media, you must first become aware of how you use social media and how often you use it.

Once you become aware, you can begin to accept it, and find ways to take control back into your own hands.

Become mindful of your social media use:

Scientists have discovered a link between mindfulness and happiness. To understand this link, it can help to identify the two key components of mindfulness: awareness and acceptance.

Awareness is the act of monitoring or paying attention to your present environment and experience or also known as being "in the moment."

Acceptance is allowing all your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and even your cravings to be exactly as they are, without suppressing them or making a big deal about them; also known as "sitting with your feelings," and accepting them for as they are.

Happiness comes from becoming aware and accepting whatever experiences arise without judging or trying to control them.

A step-by-step guide to follow to become mindful of your social media use:

  • Before you open the app, ask yourself, "why? What is my purpose?" If it's just to scroll, that's okay! But be real with yourself and become aware of that.

  • Set alarms and time limits. Schedule time out of your day to be on social media. If it's just to scroll, try and be intentional about it. After you finish scrolling through the app, ask yourself questions about the content you just viewed – did you retain any of the information? Can you recall it and tell it to a friend (without viewing the post again)?

  • Monitor the type of content you consume and the people you follow. Follow people who inspire, educate, and motivate you. If at any point, a person makes you feel ‘bad’ about your experience on social media, unfollow or ‘mute’ them until you work through the emotions.

  • Reflect on it. Are you aligned with the platform and how do you feel about it? Ask yourself, "how does being on social media make me feel?"

  • Turn off all unnecessary notifications.

  • **most importantly, be nonjudgmental to yourself and of others

Keep in mind that these are not always easy questions to have to ask yourself. No one ever really likes to have to admit to themselves that they may have an addiction or have addictive behaviors regarding a social media platform. However, these kinds of questions and conversations are necessary. For more insight into this topic, check out our blog, 'Why we all need to be more intentional with social media.'

Adriana Leos; Chief Creative Officer of vznayres

written by:

Adriana Leos

Chief Creative Officer


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