How Social Media Makes Us Think We’re Paying Attention

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Your brain is always looking for something interesting.

In most cases this is a good thing. If you go to the grocery store, you can tell the hunt is on. You are looking for good sales or trying to decide between Thai food or chicken curry. In a bookstore, you might glance at a couple of covers and in a flash see an eye-catching title or colorful design. Next thing you know, you’re carrying home a stack of books.

This constant search uses a part of our brain called the temporal lobe. As the name suggests, this region allows us to “catch and release” anything. controls attention on a temporary basis. We love this type of temporal activity because most of us get bored easily; we are happy about a constant attention stimulus. The allure of material “things” means our brains can shift focus and keep searching for something worthy of our attention.

I mention shopping because our temporal lobe is in overdrive when we walk into a store. I live near a 4 star Amazon store that only sells premium products (unfortunately it looks like it will be closing soon). I linger far too long. It’s fun to browse through the top rated board games and then switch to the top rated gadgets. I’ve been reviewing products for the last 20 years so seeing all the “good stuff” in one place is a dream come true. I am fascinated by the products on offer. I lose myself in the moment and time stands still.

If our brains weren’t easy to hook, we’d always get bored. You might even argue that one sign of burnout or depression is that we’re not tied down and have to work harder to find interesting distractions in life.

I experience this sometimes when I’m on the road, rushing through airports and staying in hotels. I’m not that interested in discovering new things, except for a pillow in the hotel. I’m not easily captivated by new experiences, and that’s also the case when I usually turn to my phone instead.

Here’s the problem. Social media has transformed the smartphone market in recent years, and not for the better. The algorithms constantly feed us with interesting information, images, articles and videos. (That’s one reason Articles on how to be productive with your phone exist.) Our temporal lobe is more than happy to engage with the content as we scroll and scroll and scroll.

What is really happening? Going back to my shopping example at this 4-star Amazon store: Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and every other social media app constantly show us interesting, attention-grabbing posts and videos. We scroll happily because our brains are programmed to look for interesting distractions, and social media is the most efficient option.

You may think this is not the same as addiction, and you are right. At least mostly right. I like to imagine the constant scrolling transient attention disorder, a disease that is similar to addiction but not quite the same. In addiction, we crave a stimulus that we know is compelling and effective. With Temporary Attention Disorder we are constantly looking for new stimuli. We like that it is temporary and ephemeral; the more fleeting the better. We absorb the stimulus and move on to the next, usually within a few seconds.

Over the past few years, after studying social media and how it offers value while also being incredibly dangerous, I’ve found the problem to be getting worse. We are desperately addicted thanks to how the temporal lobe works. We scroll more than ever.

The solution is not that simple. We need to rid ourselves of this continuous stimulus so readily available on our plastic devices. The great challenge of our time is to find a way to free ourselves from the cycle of false attention stimuli.

Social media doesn’t offer a spectacular experience anyway; it’s just ok The answer lies in taking the first step, recognizing that some basic brain science is involved, and then breaking out of the loop, finding new things to focus on instead, and controlling our consumption to fight addiction.

Where to start My advice hasn’t changed in the last two years: make sure you only use these apps for a limited time, or delete them until you need them again. It starts with accepting that the apps control us and choosing to control them instead.

Need help overcoming your scrolling problem? Send me a message via email and I promise to reply with a few more tips and provide some basic anti-scrolling strategies.

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