I loved reading as a child. I was reading day and night, finishing book after book. I almost finished the entire children and youth collection at the local library.
In my early teens, I got my first computer and MSN messenger was a big thing for many years. When I would be doing homework, MSN was always on and active in the background.
In my mid-late teens, the first social media became mainstream and were added to the mix. Then the first smartphones came out and everyone had WhatsApp and was connected anywhere and anytime.
In my early twenties, I discovered Instagram and loved it. (Still do, actually.)
Throughout these years, my reading hobby got pushed to the background because “I never had time”. I blamed it on school and study (which was only partly true). At some point after graduating, I decided to pick up a book again.
I imagined it would be just like my childhood, where I would be sucked into a book’s story right away.
That was certainly not the case.
Although I had very consciously picked up a book and had the clear intention of reading – my mind kept wandering off, the. Whole. Damn. Time. I was struggling massively to keep my focus on reading just 1 page.
How was this possible? I knew I had a hard time focusing on my homework in school, but reading for fun had never been an issue.
As I learned more about how social media and smartphones work, I learned how they are designed to steal and keep our attention.
Over the years, my brain had been trained (actually, manipulated) to search for distractions and it’s not just me. We see it globally and it has reduced our attention span.
This led me to the journey to discover how social media impacts our attention span and what to do to improve it.
What is attention span?
Before moving on, what does attention span actually mean?
Attention span is the amount of time spent focused on a task without becoming distracted.
Distractions can be internal (like to-do items or random memories popping up) or external (like notifications or noise). There’s a different way of dealing with each type of distraction, as I learned from the book “Indistractable”, by Nir Eyal.
Losing your focus has a tremendous effect on your productivity, no matter what you’re doing. After being distracted, it takes more than 20 minutes to get back to your original task. That’s a lot of time wasted after every distraction!
Here we’ll dive deep into external distractions, specifically those created by social media (and other smartphone) apps.
How social media distracts us (on purpose)
As you know, social media apps are free to use. Yet these companies have some of the highest market values ever. So, how do they earn money?
The real customers of social media are not the users like you and me – but advertisers are the customers. And our attention and data is what’s being sold.
Data collection and our attention go hand in hand. The more time you spend on social media, the more data can be collected about you.
More data has 2 benefits:
- Advertisers can target people very specifically
- Social media can sell their ad space for a higher price
So it is in social media’s benefit to keep you on their platforms as long as possible. You may have noticed how you get “lost” in these apps. Before you know it, 40 minutes have passed, doing nothing but having a “quick look” at social media.
It’s not your fault.
These apps were designed to keep you hooked and get addicted, so they can reach their goal. Social media apps capitalize on several behavioral design techniques to manipulate our brain chemistry.
The dopamine effect
Many of social media’s distracting features impact your brain’s dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger between neurons.
Your brain releases dopamine when it’s expecting or receiving a reward. It’s basically how your brain learns what’s worth doing again.
When an activity gives you pleasure, dopamine will be released and you’ll feel good. The dopamine also reinforces that the activity does indeed give you pleasure and to look for it again – your brain will crave the dopamine related to that activity.
A like on Facebook: dopamine.
An Instagram message: dopamine.
A news notification: dopamine.
At some point, just simply anticipating or expecting that activity, will be enough to release dopamine. So you start looking for distractions.
Our brains don’t see the difference between reinforcing useful habits and bad habits. When released in response to the wrong trigger, dopamine can reinforce bad habits to the point they become addictions.
So how is this used in social media and your phone?
- Pull to refresh
You know slot machines in casinos, where you pull the lever and may or may not get a reward? The “pull-to-refresh” feature is borrowed straight from slot machines – some of the most addictive machines ever invented.
This behavior is related to “intermittent reinforcements”. Sometimes you get a reward, sometimes you don’t. The unpredictability and excitement keeps us coming back.
- Never-ending feed
Another one straight from the casinos. In casinos there are no windows and no clocks, so you stay there longer than you think.
Social media apps keep you on their platform with never-ending feeds. No matter how much you scroll, you will never get to the bottom of the feed.
Without any stopping cues, you’re less likely to move on to something else.
This also functions as an intermittent reinforcement, because you’re always excited to see what post is next.
Ah, the dreaded notifications. My first tip for whoever wants to reduce their screen time, is to turn off notifications.
Notifications are an app’s ultimate way to distract you and lure you to the app. “You got a message”, “This news just came in”, “Get a discount on your delivery”, “Person A just posted this”, “It’s time to do this” – sounds familiar?
Whenever your phone lights up, pings or buzzes, it’s an immediate distraction. Even if you don’t engage with it, your brain has been interrupted.
Notifications can trigger a dopamine release. The level of mystery because you don’t know what the notification says, is again a form of intermittent reinforcement.
How to improve your attention span?
Just like your brain has been trained to look for distractions, you can train it to improve your attention span. Here are a few simple tips I started with which had a great impact.
1. Turn off notifications
As mentioned before, my number one tip is: Turn off your notifications. Both on your phone and laptop. It does you no good to see every incoming email right away. Let alone all the junk notifications from other apps.
You can keep text message notifications enabled. When you need a moment of real focus, simply turn on your Do Not Disturb mode to temporarily disable those as well.
2. Get on social media at a scheduled moment
Another tip is to schedule 1 moment a day to check your social media. 1 time a day, for a maximum of 30 minutes. Treat it like a “hobby” or “to do point” instead of something that’s there all day, every day.
That way, you won’t be distracted throughout the day and your brain will slowly unlearn the intermittent behavior patterns.
3. Start reading
Reading is an excellent exercise to train your brain to focus. When you just start, it will most likely be a nightmare to keep your attention on the page (I know it was for me!).
And it’s okay to struggle like that. You will get past the struggle if you do it more often. Try to make it a daily habit and aim to read at least 1 page a day.
Find more tips in this other article I wrote: Improve Your Focus With These 6 Exercises
Let's get started
Over the past 1,5-2 years, I have been making conscious efforts to reduce my screen time and waste less time on my phone. I have been reading more too.
Although on some days I still struggle with keeping my focus, whether reading or working, it has definitely improved.
Now it’s my mission to help others improve their focus and productivity. At Clear Grow Shine, I aim to make you aware of time spent on social media, teach about digital minimalism and how to create healthy phone habits.
Get the social media detox guide to start your own journey of less social media and improving your attention span.