Social media saps more than just short-term attention

The prevalent wisdom about why social media is distracting is that it provides a constant opportunity for immediate distraction. Whenever your work feels even the slightly unsatisfying, there’s the temptation to get a momentary break by looking at Facebook, and then you’ve spent fifteen minutes chatting away when you should have been working.

There’s a lot of truth to this. I’ve experienced it first-hand many times, and talked a lot about it in my essay about the addiction economy.

But I find that’s only a part of the problem. I find that in addition to sapping short-term attention, social media also damages long-term attention. (I’m focusing on social media here, because it’s the one that I’m the most hooked on myself – but any other source of quick, immediate reward would also have the same effect.)

Take a day when I don’t have access to social media, and don’t have anything else in particular to do, either. My typical behavior on such days is that I might be bored for a while, maybe take a walk, and then gradually, over some time, get ideas for projects that I could be doing, and start working on them.

In contrast, on a day when I do have access to Facebook, say, at the point when I start growing bored I’ll glance at Facebook, because hey, why not? I’m just taking a quick look to see if there are any updates or new notifications, I’ll get offline right after that.

And maybe I do. Often I do succeed in just checking the updates and notifications, maybe briefly commenting on something, then closing Facebook again. But what then happens is that sometime later, I’ll take another quick look on Facebook again. And again. And again.

And then that period of idle, slightly bored mind-wandering never gets to the point where I start gathering the motivation to work on my own project. Because at the point when I start feeling bored, my default action is to look at Facebook, filling my mind with whatever is happening there, rather than it starting to come up with new things to do. Even when I close the browser tab, the gradually forming  idea of “hey, maybe I could do X” has been flushed away by whatever was in the window, meaning that it needs more time to reform.

Sometimes I take longer breaks from social media, after having used it quite heavily on previous days. On such occasions, it’s often been my experience that it takes a day for my mind to recalibrate its expectations – on the first day I’m constantly anxious to go on Facebook, but after that I’m starting to have more creativity. It is written:

Complex systems learn by adjusting to feedback, and feedback that is sufficiently loud and frequent will oversaturate the system’s inputs, leading it to reduce its overall sensitivity in order to register changes. When instant and immediate gratification becomes the norm, more subtle forms of feedback become harder to register. Getting engrossed in a book becomes increasingly difficult. The same goes for different kinds of stories: it’s easier to sit through an action movie than a drama because the story is simple and the movie is mostly comprised of satisfying bits of conflict resolution in the simple form of karate chops and shootouts. We might force ourselves to sit through a few chapters of Tolstoy, but the real issue is that we ultimately have to re-calibrate our receptivity to feedback in order to gain interest in more subtle flavors of experience.

Subtle flavors of experience, like the barely noticeable sensation in your mind that’s the stirring of a new idea, which you could allow to grow and develop.

Studies suggest that the mental effort involved in a task may be proportional to the opportunity cost of not doing something else. In other words, things aren’t so much intrinsically appealing or unappealing, but more appealing or unappealing relative to the appealingness of the best thing that you could be doing instead. If you have constant access to video games, going outside for a walk may seem like something pretty boring, but if you don’t have anything better to do, you may notice that going for a walk actually feels like a pretty nice idea.

Presumably this works for unconscious task-selection, too. If the social media is always available as an option, then momentarily checking that may be treated by your unconscious brain as something that has a higher reward than starting to think about something with a more long-term payoff, such as a creative project.

The insidious thing here is that you may not notice the effect this has on you. From your perspective, yeah, you’re looking at social media every now and then, but it’s always just short moments, and you’re spending the vast majority of your time not on social media. So why are you still feeling listless and easily distracted?

Because it isn’t enough to spend the majority of your time away from distractions, if that time isn’t also spent continuously away from them.

As it happens, I had been thinking about this topic for a while, but only wrote up this essay on an occasion when I’d decided to spend the rest of the day off social media. Then this essay started formulating itself in my mind, and I wrote it up in pretty much one go, to be posted at a later time.

3 comments

  1. I have definitely noticed this happening. When I use social media every day, and then put it aside for a few hours to actually get some work done, I notice that I’m constantly distracted by thoughts of what I read on social media. This difficulty in concentrating creates a vicious cycle; work is so hard to concentrate on (because my mind is filled with a thousand other thoughts) that I often need to take breaks, and I end up spending those breaks on social media.

    When I took a multi-day break from the internet, I was amazed at how much easier it became to concentrate on my work. I realized I was underestimating how much processing power the internet takes up, and how many of my thoughts revolve around internet content, even when I’m not actively using the internet at that very minute.

    Sadly, this realization has not actually kept me from continuing to spend pretty much my whole life online. =X

  2. Risto Saarelma

    I read this, then unplugged my DSL modem and got some work done.

  3. Reading this made me feel super awesome because I was the one who pointed you towards the quoted simulacrumbs post over a year ago (http://lesswrong.com/r/all/lw/ita/how_habits_work_and_how_you_may_control_them/9x2l).

    Unfortunately this awesome feeling will only reinforce my attention-sapping blog reading habit.

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