Although technology overall has had an effect on our attention span, social media has a direct link to short attention spans. There is a question of whether social media causes short attention spans, or if people with short attention span gravitate naturally to social media. We explore this question and others here.
Is Engagement a Drug?
From the time you open an account, you feel the pressure to engage. Even in the days of Myspace, you had to establish your preferences and fill in a ton of information about yourself. Even though signing up for Facebook now seems more like signing up for a credit card, there are a few questions that bring the focus back to your personal life.
When the app prompts you to sync your contacts or connect you with people you know, you may feel that first rush of adrenaline and dopamine. That’s right, social media and drugs both supply your brain with the feel-good chemicals that will keep you coming back. At first, your brain may get an overload of dopamine, but soon it will adjust.
After you adjust to the new chemical effect that takes place in your brain, you'll find that you'll need to see more content. This addiction means that you'll spend more time watching more videos, reading more articles, and commenting on more user posts. But this is only the start.
What is engagement? There are many opportunities to engage online, but the people controlling engagement now are not the casual users of social media. Aside from outright ads, many companies are building engagement through social media as a marketing task.
Marketing officials utilize engagement to make the people feel special when they use or promote their products. They offer raffles or post semi-personal shout-outs to build up their brand image. It is long and tiring work, but effective.
Engagement works the same way that a drug does. You leave feeling special and validated. But, after a stretch of time, you'll need more. You will go seeking more validation, and a better feeling. So, why doesn't this search for more create a longer attention span?
Important, Urgent, and Entertaining
There are small time frames where an adult can sit and guiltlessly engage in some form of entertainment. Social media takes advantage of that and uses the power of engagement to reel you into hours of scrolling. Many people give up social media because they feel that it is taking up too much of their time.
But the reason that social media takes up so much of our time is that it requires virtually no attention span. There is no distinction between what is essential, urgent, or entertaining on social media. There is no decision making involved.
An urgent matter such as reaching a relative in a crisis stands out to nearly everyone. But, when it comes to tasks like booking hotels, buying tickets, and scheduling significant events a heavy social media user might feel inclined to put it off. Why?
Social media is bursting to the seams with stories of things that go just as planned even though they happened at the last minute.
Just like social media streams are full of posts or articles about how important aspects of life go terribly wrong before they go terribly right.
This pattern gives the sense that you don’t have to address the important because it’s not as important as everyone else it making it seem. You learn to expect it from the wide spectrum of emotionally charged posts.
If you see a series of semi-graphic sob stories, and then a success story you get an increased rush of dopamine. But, none of these critical topics actually get any attention. It is unlikely that users regular donate to charities based on false news reports, or real news reports for that matter.
It is also rare that a success story on social media will catapult someone into their next significant milestone in life. Of course, it is possible that these reports of terrible things or success stories will lead to action. But, it’s more likely that they will both lead to more scrolling.
Finally, posts, stories, images, and videos are all forms of entertainment. They may not have the outrageous click-bait title or sound like a tabloid, but the goal is the same.
The people writing those stories only want your attention for a second. Social media caters around the short attention span. They don’t offer you an action to follow at the end of a post or they make action increasingly difficult. This media cycle means that in the best situation, all you're reading is entertainment.
How Does Social Media Lead to a Short Attention Span?
Have you ever stopped what you were doing to check your phone and realize it didn’t vibrate? Have you recently opened and closed your phone when you couldn’t decide which app you should open? You are not alone, but these are signs of a short attention span.
The most significant impact of social media on our attention span is the medium. In 2016 comScore’s cross-platform focus study on marketing and social media usage found that about 67% of social media usage was done on a smartphone with an additional 12% of social media activity taking place through a tablet device.
A phone or tablet is the same device that someone would use to deliver an urgent message or a national alert. We desire the best from our mobile devices such as texts from loved ones, and interactions with close friends. But, we also expect the worst which makes every notification urgent.
Unfortunately, when a social media app is notifying you that a person you follow just uploaded something you feel compelled to open the app. This point is where the cycle of engagement begins again.
Because of how we are engaging with social media we have made it much more important than it ever was. Now, we must fight to not pick up the phone with every chime or buzz. We struggle knowing that the chime could hold good or bad news, as well as neutral information. This wide-scale of possibility impacts our attention span because we feel that the phone is more important than anything else we could, or should, be doing.
Fighting for a Longer Attention Span
If you want to have an attention span that is longer than the attention span of a goldfish, you need to exercise a bit of restraint. We all do. If everyone could limit the use of social media, or even restrict yourself from using it on your phone, we could have a much longer attention span.
The solution is to distance yourself from social media and using it only for the original purpose. If you’re using Instagram to publish photos of yourself or your business, then you need to genuinely engage with others who share the same passions and hobbies as you do.
If you’re on Facebook as a way to stay connected with family or friends, then you don’t need to belong to a variety of Facebook groups that you wouldn’t meet with in person.
There are a lot of rules you can set down for yourself. Try some of these to help prevent a short attention span:
- Read every article from start to finish.
- Set a social media time limit.
- Only engage with people you know.
- Don’t follow brands or celebrities.
These rules are examples of what has worked for many other people. Finding rules that work for you may take some time, but it's possible.
If you are looking for new ways to distance yourself from social media altogether to preserve a longer attention span you can build a list of things that you should do instead of scrolling through your feed. Try these:
- Feed the cat or take the dog for a walk.
- Call a friend.
- Spend time relaxing.
- Read something in print.
- Watch an instructional video.
You may notice that some of these items fall firmly in line with what initially sparked interest in social media. When you read stories in print, or even on a kindle you don't have the pressure to comment, like, share, or respond. Instead of people tagging you on videos that have a 6-minute story, you can read through a story that interests you because you picked it.
Many people find that social media is how they spend their relaxing time. However, social media is not actually relaxing. Watching TV is relaxing because there isn’t any pressure to engage or process. Reading a book is relaxing because you don’t feel the need to tell others about it right this moment.
Finally, watching instructional videos is a great alternative because it flexes your attention span. When you begin watching videos that require your attention but not feedback you are learning with minimal engagement. Spend time looking for longer videos, or videos that fall into a series.
Many people choose to restrict their time on social media completely. Keep your phone on silent, or schedule specific times for checking social media to fight for your long-term attention span. If you are looking for ways to schedule your time, so you don't check social media, you can start a new hobby or set your phone to “do not disturb.”
There are opportunities all around for you to lengthen your attention span. If you feel like you have a short-term attention span because of social media, act now.