You’ve probably heard of this before: Social media is killing our attention span. But you probably haven’t linked it with certain other aspects of your life which cause you frustration and believe me, they are linked.
Have you ever been talking about something and suddenly forgotten what you were explaining mid-sentence? Or wanted to answer a question and forget what you were going to say? Or wanted to bring up a topic and completely forgotten the train of thought that brought it up?
This can be linked to social media use, the explanation being: we are over-saturated with stimuli.
Social networks are built in a way that keeps you hooked for as long as possible. Time spent on their sites and apps is money for them since most social networks are ‘free’, they have to make money this way and all social networks are companies.
They all work in this way, they stimulate your attention as much as possible for a long as possible, not allowing you to get bored and keeping you hooked. Many people know this, but they fail to see the consequences.
The way this is linked to memory is in how our attention selects certain information. As quoted from the Oxford Center for Human Brain Activity:
We are constantly bombarded with information in our environment which we must prioritize, process, and make use of in an adaptive manner. Selective attention is the mechanism which facilitates prioritization and processing by enhancing relevant information at the expense of irrelevant information
This means that we prioritise some information over others.
Being overstimulated for long periods can have adverse effects; it can act as a small pair of pants on a large person, the pants stretch and they normally don’t go back too easily.
Our attention spans get accustomed to being at this new saturation (information intake) level and when there’s an absence or decrease in this level we are asphyxiated.
We literally get bored with ourselves since we are used to being so ‘entertained’.
Once we are not as entertained our subconscious starts looking for something that can fill this void, abandoning any less-valuable (less stimulating) options.
Essentially what is going on is that our minds are ill-conditioned to be going at such speeds (overstimulated) that when we slow down, they cannot, and we lose our train of thought.
Something similar happens with pleasure, we are so hooked on getting high doses of pleasure we are then left feeling sour when it comes to an act or event that is less stimulating. Even if we know that what we are doing should be interesting enough to bring us pleasure and engagement.
This can be exemplified by eating a sweet piece of fruit, the fruit is sweet only until you eat some ice cream, the sugar-rich ice cream makes the sweet fruit seem dull and boring, your taste buds get used to the new boost in pleasure and don’t want to go back.
When you do something desirable, your brain releases a chemical called dopamine. You may have heard of dopamine as the ‘feel-good’ drug.
This is turn tells your brain that what you have just done feels good. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for beneficial behaviours and motivates us to repeat them.
We have 4 major dopamine pathways in the brain. The pathway concerned with memory, cognition, attention, emotional behaviour and learning is called the Mesocortical pathway. It has been shown to be dysfunctional in abuse circumstances.
A paper published by Trevor Haynes at the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School talks about how dopamine and time are interconnected:
There is a feature of our dopamine neurons called RPE (reward prediction error). These predictions serve as dopamine-driven feedback signals to our brains. This neurological feature is something social networks have used to their advantage for years. For example: You’ll have experienced the intense anticipation while scrolling through the likes and comments you have received on a photo and seeing how it’s received by others. Causing our dopamine neurons to increase their activity, creating a rewarding feeling.
When we are not in this situation however, we are in a negative dopamine state. The loss of dopamine activity encourages us to disengage.
Social media experiences vs real life experiences.
We are in a positive dopamine state when on social media, and in a negative one when in real life. Causing us to be less interested, less pleased.
Social media allows us to be ‘in the moment’ but albeit behind a smartphone screen.
They want you to be as connected as possible, incentivising multiple usages a day to “not miss a single thing” but the issue is that by interacting in this way you are not required to immediately, naturally respond.
Take messaging apps for example:
You receive a message on a social platform, read it, think about it and then you choose if you want to answer or not.
This interaction is very different in person:
Someone asks you a question and you generally respond — granted you can ignore people outright — but the fundamental basis of the face-to-face situation is different, the mind realises the interaction as an active one and makes you react differently.
So by having many interactions online, we are essentially missing part of the engagement factor that we would otherwise have in person.
This is the most common link people make; not socialising when they should be.
We have all seen it:
The person who is in a social situation (event, party, mall, etc) surrounded by others but is glued to their phone, normally on some social network.
What is happening here is that the person is taking the easier (albeit less healthy) route to non-boredom. They are getting their fix of entertainment but without having to go through the minefield of real-life socialisation.
It is difficult to socialise, and doing it through a phone screen makes it 1000 times easier and less embarrassing.
Interest is the precursing state to pleasure, discontent or indifference. It is what comes before these states, interest is what sparks you to do something or take an action. It is quite fundamental.
The way in which social media is destroying this is by combining all of the above:
We are hooked on a fix of intense pleasure by a social network, we are hooked on engagement by the unnatural levels of stimulation a social network can give us and we are addicted to easy socialisation with fewer consequences than in real life.
If there’s no interest, there’s no spark, if there’s no spark, we don’t do anything… and what is the meaning of life if we don’t do anything?
How to fix it
Now if you read the above you may have thought one of two things:
- This is stupid
- This kinda makes sense
That can depend on a multitude of things; your upbringing, your mental state, stress, current life situation, weather or not you meditate, being an introvert or an extrovert, etc.
I claim no knowledge of how or why you as a person do things, only you can evaluate who you are and how you live your life. But ultimately anyone can get value from internal and external exploration, be it in abundance or scarcity.
All I can do at this point is to state my personal experience and evidence and let you evaluate its validity:
What I have done to take back control of my time and life:
A. Delete all social networks
Let me rephrase: delate all social networks that don’t provide you with value. If you deem something to be of important value that you cannot get from anywhere but a social network, then keep it (but checkpoint ‘B’ on this list). Ex.: Maybe you need to communicate with friends and they only have Whatsapp, or you need to stay in contact with someone on the other side of the planet, or maybe you use a social network for work, etc.
B. Whatever you don’t delete, use with caution
It is incredibly easy to get hooked again, that is after all, what these companies are best at. So take every instance that you open a social network with a pinch of salt and wisdom. Be cautious to do only what you NEED to do, only log in for what you need to log in for and get out ASAP.
Start to try and implement changes that can replace social networks with healthy forms that get the same job done. Ex.: If you need to communicate with someone use a simple internet messenger, that does only that; message. If you want to keep in touch with someone on the other side of the globe maybe you can set a Skype date. If you need social media for work use it only for work and keep it clean and professional.
Many people decide to delete social networks or take a break from them only to be back within a week or less.
Intentional or not, this relapse is perfectly normal once you understand what is going on:
You can’t simply remove something as stimulating and time-consuming (and enjoyable to some extent) as a social network and hope to be ‘cured’ of desiring it. No, you are an addict and being addicted is hard to recover from.
What you have to do is replace the pleasure you were getting from a social network with healthy tasks that also give you pleasure. You can read more about that here.
Phones have been around for 40 odd years, the internet for 30, and social networks for 15 years. We are at the beginning of the social media age. We have to come to terms with what that means.
We are experiencing an unprecedented growth of something that has never been seen before in the history of man; mass connectivity with others.
Just as any other ‘new thing’ we are not sure what and where the limits are, and we are just coming to terms with what it may mean for our physical and mental health to have an unlimited supply of social networking.
We can’t leave it to the companies since they are thriving off of this growth, we need to take back our own time and minds to set a precedent for the future to come.
In short; spend less time on social networks (obvious), delete and remove as many of them that you can and replace your social networking habits with positive habits.
Ask yourself why.