Five ways in which social media and tech are harming our attention
- Social media and tech are designed to train our minds to crave frequent rewards. They make us hunger for likes. This craving will drive you to pick up your phone more and more. You’ll break away from your work and your relationships to seek a sweet, sweet hit of retweets.
- These sites push you to switch tasks more frequently than you normally would—to pick up your phone, or click over to Facebook on your laptop. When you do this, all the costs to your attention caused by switching kick in. The evidence there shows this is as bad for the quality of your thinking as getting drunk or stoned.
- They get to know what makes you tick, in very specific ways—they learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you, what enrages you. They learn your personal triggers—what, specifically, will distract you. This means that they can drill into your attention. Whenever you are tempted to put your phone down, the site keeps drip-feeding you the kind of material that it has learned, from your past behavior, keeps you scrolling. Older technologies—like the printed page, or the television—can’t target you in this way. Social media knows exactly where to drill. It learns your most distractible spots and targets them.
- Because of the way the algorithms work, these sites make you angry a lot of the time. Scientists have been proving in experiments for years that anger itself screws with your ability to pay attention. They have discovered that if I make you angry, you will pay less attention to the quality of arguments around you, and you will show “decreased depth of processing”—that is, you will think in a shallower, less attentive way. We’ve all had that feeling—you enrage, and your ability to properly listen goes out the window. The business models of these sites are jacking up our anger every day.
- In addition to making you angry, these sites make you feel that you are surrounded by other people’s anger. This can trigger a different psychological response in you. Imagine that one day you are attacked by a bear. You will stop paying attention to your normal concerns—what you’re going to eat tonight, or how you will pay the rent. You become vigilant. Your attention flips to scanning for unexpected dangers all around you. For days and weeks afterward, you will find it harder to focus on more everyday concerns. This isn’t limited to bears. These sites make you feel that you are in an environment full of anger and hostility, so you become more vigilant—a situation where more of your attention shifts to searching for dangers, and less and less is available for slower forms of focus like reading a book or playing with your kids.
(Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari)