Last month, two amazing science communicators, @notbrainscience and @emilia.science, started the hashtag #YoungMindsNeedMore on Instagram. The purpose was to start a conversation about the ever-changing social media landscape, which favours increasingly shorter and more stereotypical content, and the impact this has both on science communicators, as well as on the (mostly young) people who consume such content.
First of all, if you haven’t already (and have the possibility to do so), I encourage you to check out the posts under this hashtag. Secondly, the impact of social media on science communication is something that I’ve also been thinking about for quite a while, so I’ve decided to write my thoughts on it in this post. And as no discussion on this topic would be complete without examining the evidence of social media impact on our attention (and implicitly, on our brains), I will also discuss what science has found so far.
What is attention
As you probably know if you’ve been reading this page for a while, before we discuss a topic, we need to make sure that our definitions are in order and we’re talking about the same thing. So, what is attention? “Pff”, you’re probably thinking, “everyone knows what attention is. It’s when you’re focusing on stuff and paying at-ten-tion to it.” And that’s true. But formally, we would say attention is a behavioural and cognitive process which involves focusing on a certain aspect while ignoring other perceivable information.
There are different types of attention too. Depending on how and on what we’re focusing, we can talk about:
- overt vs. covert attention, i.e. explicitly indicating what we’re paying attention to by moving our eyes towards that thing vs. shifting only our mental focus towards it;
- exogenous vs. endogenous attention, i.e. attention that is reflexively captured by external stimuli (such as a notification popping up on your phone) vs. attentional allocation based on your own goals and desires (such as reaching for your phone to call you mom);
- perhaps most relevant for the current discussion, sustained vs. divided attention, i.e. showing a consistent response to a single task/stimulus for extended periods of time vs. simultaneously responding to more than one stimulus/task.
In terms of neural correlates, there is a dorsal and a ventral attention network. The dorsal frontoparietal system (intraparietal sulcus + frontal eye fields) has been shown to be involved in mediating top-down attention, while the ventral frontoparietal one (temporoparietal junction + ventral frontal cortex) is responsible for bottom-up attention or, in other words, shifting attention to unexpected or unattended stimuli which suddenly capture attention. Although anatomically and functionally distinct, there is evidence that the two networks are interacting in implementing a fully flexible attentional control.
Social media effects on attention
Before diving into this section, there is something I need to mention. My research topic is not focused on effects of social media on attention. That means that I’m not regularly following the scientific literature in this field. However, I started writing this post from the already-formed opinion that social media is devastating for attention, both short- and long-term, that the scientific literature had already reached a consensus on this matter, and all I had to do was to look up the relevant studies in order to get the specifics. After all, we all know that social media causes addiction (or do we?), that it pushes more and extreme content just for the sake of engagement, and that it’s singularly responsible for all evil in society, so it must also be ruining sustained attention, right? Additionally, it’s not so far-fetched to think that social media has negative effects on sustained attention, as you constantly have to jump from one topic to another, from one short video to another. Plus, if you end up addicted to social media, basically all of your attention will be dedicated to that. But the picture I found was far from clear.
Of course, there’s no denying or contesting that social media has a negative impact both on society, as well as on our well-being, but there is a lot of nuance which gets lost in blanket doomsday statements. And I would argue that, at least in this case, nuance is what can help us in finding ways to improve our social media usage rather than hating and outright banning it from our lives.
With that being said, let’s move on to the topic at hand: how does social media impact sustained attention? In order to answer this question, there are two types of studies at which we should take a look: short-term (or cross-sectional) and long-term (or longitudinal).
The focus of such studies is to investigate the effect of interruptions on attention. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any study which looks specifically at social media apps, but the findings from both mobile app and smartphone interruptions could be extrapolated, given that we’re talking about very similar media.
In terms of mobile app interruptions, one study has shown that, if users receive other notifications while trying to complete a task on their phone, the completion of the original task can happen with a delay of up to four times higher compared to how long the task would normally take. Extending this to social media, the implications are two-fold: on the one hand, engaging with longer-form content within the apps themselves could take much longer, as one usually receives various notifications about likes, texts, mentions and so on; on the other hand, given the constant interruptions, processing the information outlined in this content would be more strenuous and most likely less effective.
Regarding smartphone effects, it has been shown that participants perform poorer on attentional tasks (such as pressing a button when a certain stimulus appears on the screen) if they hear smartphone notifications popping up nearby. Even more, the mere presence of a random silent smartphone in the testing room caused them to perform worse on these tasks. The implications of these findings are similar to the ones above. A point of criticism here is that attentional tasks studied in lab settings are incredibly boring, so participants simply shifted their attention to something more stimulating. Nevertheless, while further studies conducted in naturalistic settings in terms of highly engaging tasks are needed, one should not disregard the fact that even outside of the lab, we sometimes need to fully focus on boring tasks. One prime example is driving, which we already know is dangerously affected by phone-related multitasking.
Even if social media and smartphones directly affect your attention in the short term, as long as the effects are reversible (let’s say you delete all your social media apps or leave your phone in another room when working), things would not be so bad. On the other hand, we would be in really serious trouble if the damage were permanent. Here is where long-term studies come into play.
In general, in these studies, researchers take a sample of participants and gather information about their social media or smartphone use habits, then correlate these with particular measures of attention or other performance indicators, such as school grades.
Here too, there are unfortunately very few studies which investigate social media in particular, and even fewer that look at specific platforms. A couple of these studies, which looked at how Facebook use affects students, have found that increased Facebook use was correlated with increased task-switching and multitasking behaviours. Furthermore, students who spent more time on Facebook had lower GPAs. Nevertheless, as these are correlational studies (and we all know correlation does NOT imply causation), it is unclear what the direction of this relationship is. While it could be true that Facebook distracts them from learning, thus leading to lower grades, an alternative explanation could be that students with low motivation and self-regulation choose to spend more time on social media and if this distraction were absent, they would simply replace it with another one (after all, who hasn’t procrastinated by deep-cleaning the entire house?).
Other studies correlating attentional performance with the level of media multitasking (being on social media while doing another task) came up with mixed findings: while in some cases heavy media multitaskers performed worse, in other cases they actually did much better.
As already mentioned above, one problem here is that all these studies are correlational, which means they don’t tell us anything about directionality. Furthermore, they are based on self-reported measures, which means that there might be some bias in estimating how much time one actually spends engaging with these apps. The solution in this case would be to design studies in which participants’ screen time can be accurately monitored and their attentional performance regularly assessed. And to directly address the problem of reversibility, one would need to add an intervention to the study, i.e. have people reduce their social media time over a longer period of time and monitor how the attentional performance changes.
In fact, one such study has already laid the groundwork in this respect, by investigating how a seven-day 10% vs 50% reduction in time spent on social media affects attention. What they found was that, while people said they find it easier to focus, none of the attention measurements actually showed any kind of improvement. Additionally, people reported less negative emotions, but not more positive ones. Of course, further studies are needed to validate and extend these findings.
What does this mean?
Ok, so we have all of these studies and their problems laid out in front of us, but what’s the bottom line here? Is social media bad for sustained attention or not? Well, in short, we cannot yet give a definitive answer. As I’ve said in the beginning of this section, nuance is important. On the one hand, we have the short-term studies which point towards disruptive short-term effects, but we still need to take a closer look at specific social media apps. On the other hand, the long-term picture is a bit more complicated and we currently don’t have enough high-quality studies to answer that question.
Until this gets properly answered, however, I would say that you should think about your social media habits. Even if it doesn’t affect everyone the same way, think about how it affects you personally. Does it constantly distract you and prevent you from doing other things? Then consider setting boundaries around it: maybe leave your phone in another room when you have to do an important task or keep it out of the bedroom so you don’t spend hours on it before bed or consider disabling notifications. Do you interact with content that brings some form of value to your life, be it educational, entertaining, social or do you just mindlessly scroll through random stuff? Do you feel that whatever the algorithm feeds you pushes your buttons and causes extreme emotions? Consider stepping away from it once in a while and try going beyond that knee-jerk reaction by critically evaluating the information you’re seeing (why is it framed that way? is it really true? is there another side to the story?) Which content do you see on your feed? Is it from people you consciously followed or is it from random accounts that the algorithm feeds you to keep you longer on the platform?
In other words, be mindful of how social media affects your attention, your emotions and your view of the world.
Effective science communication
Now that we have a clearer picture of where the scientific literature stands in terms of social media impact on attention, we can move on to our main question of interest: how does effective science communication fit into the current social media landscape?
But before discussing the how, I’d like to address the “why should it”. A point that I’ve heard quite often is why should science communication be on social media anyway? Sure, it could on blogs and on Youtube, but who goes on Instagram or on Facebook for this? People just want to look at cute pictures there. For me, the answer is quite straightforward: because that’s where misinformation is. And because one way of stopping misinformation is by countering it with correct information in the same medium.
Coming back now to our original question, I would argue that in order for science communication to be effective, one needs to be able to convey nuance. As we’ve also seen in this post, scientific answers are rarely cut and dried and facts need to be put in context, otherwise we risk losing important meaning and even devolving into the territory of misinformation. This implies two things: on the one hand, that one usually needs more than 30-second videos for clearly explaining scientific concepts; on the other hand, presenting a balanced view will often not be as shocking as reducing it to a catchy statement.
Regarding the first point, I’ve already mentioned in the section on attention that longer-form content could be more difficult to engage with on social media due to attention-grabbing notifications which interrupt you. At the same time, social media algorithms push content based on engagement rates, which means that not only it takes you more time to get through a longer post, but because you switch away from it, this could be interpreted as a sign that it’s not so interesting in the first place, and fewer people will end up seeing it.
Engagement-based display of content also ties into the second point. A balanced view that doesn’t elicit strong emotions will lead to fewer people expressing strong disagreement or agreement and to fewer re-shares. In turn, this will further diminish the visibility of the respective post.
In this context, science communicators face a tough choice: compromise on the accurate, nuanced presentation of information in the hope that the little bits which do get through will spark people’s interest and determine them to search for more explanations by themselves or ultimately be phased out. And while you might not care whenever any individual’s social media page loses its audience, given the current situation of misinformation on these platforms, I would argue that pushing science communicators out of them would be quite problematic.
Where do we go from here?
There are many more things which could be said on the topic. You might even disagree with me. But this post has already turned out much longer than I anticipated, so if you’re interested, we can continue the conversation in the comments below.
I would just like to end this on a positive note and say it’s not all doom and gloom. Just as being mindful about social media habits can help in terms of attention, so can it in terms of helping science communicators. In short, thinking about ways in which you can engage with their longer-form content and following through can help them get out of the dilemma outlined above, while also helping you with your own feed.
What did you think about this post? Let us know in the comments below.
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You might also like:
Carbonell, X., & Panova, T. (2017). A critical consideration of social networking sites’ addiction potential. Addiction Research & Theory, 25(1), 48-57.
Cecutti, L., Chemero, A., & Lee, S. W. (2021). Technology may change cognition without necessarily harming it. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(8), 973-975.
He, Q., Turel, O., & Bechara, A. (2017). Brain anatomy alterations associated with Social Networking Site (SNS) addiction. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-8.
Judd, T. (2014). Making sense of multitasking: The role of Facebook. Computers & Education, 70, 194-202.
Leiva, L., Böhmer, M., Gehring, S., & Krüger, A. (2012, September). Back to the app: the costs of mobile application interruptions. In Proceedings of the 14th international conference on Human-computer interaction with mobile devices and services (pp. 291-294).
Madore, K. P., Khazenzon, A. M., Backes, C. W., Jiang, J., Uncapher, M. R., Norcia, A. M., & Wagner, A. D. (2020). Memory failure predicted by attention lapsing and media multitasking. Nature, 587(7832), 87-91.
Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 948-958.
van Wezel, M. M., Abrahamse, E. L., & Abeele, M. M. V. (2021). Does a 7-day restriction on the use of social media improve cognitive functioning and emotional well-being? Results from a randomized controlled trial. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 100365.
Vossel, S., Geng, J. J., & Fink, G. R. (2014). Dorsal and ventral attention systems: distinct neural circuits but collaborative roles. The Neuroscientist, 20(2), 150-159.
Wilmer, H. H., Sherman, L. E., & Chein, J. M. (2017). Smartphones and cognition: A review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 605.
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