Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision making?

Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision making?

This is the sixth in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time. The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner.

Living in an echo chamber

In addition to the concerns about too much screen time creating dysfunctional behaviours there are a number of other potential dangers. These include the echo chamber effect. Algorithms serve up the things we either desire or inflame us to engage in content. Content engagement means more screen time, which means more potential advertising revenue. Being served up a constant stream of similar things and similar views can lead to social and political polarisation. We may become surrounded by people with similar views, reinforcing attachment to our own beliefs and ego. In his 2009 book, “The Master and his Emissary”, Iain McGilchrist explains how the left hemisphere of our brains already nudge us in the direction of duality, ego and separation. He describes this as like living in a hall of mirrors, where our confirmation biases seek out people and views that affirm our world view. With social media this effect is turbo charged.

As people become more polarised they increasingly cling to their group’s identity, even when they are confronted with facts which disprove their group’s view. Being part of a group may become more important than truth. This cognitive dissonance  (avoiding and discounting facts which oppose group views) , combined with confirmation bias (having heightened awareness of  information which confirms group views), increases polarisation. The more stressed and anxious people are, the more they cling to group views and identify with the group even when their membership of the group is at odds with their values, goals and the facts.

Screen time deepening our biases

The authors of “Offline” set out a number of common cognitive biases which work with social media to create a distorted view of how people see themselves and the world around them. In yoga a distorted view of reality is described as ignorance or “avidya”. It means to see the world through biased filters. These false views can adversely impact our health, wealth, happiness and relationships.  This is a summary of some of the common thinking traps which may be heightened by our screen time:

Identifiable victims – over engagement in individual stories and how they make you feel rather than understanding statistics and how society and groups of people are impacted by events

Framing effect – influenced by how information is presented. For example, if you are told person A is intelligent, diligent, impulsive, critical, stubborn and envious and person B is stubborn, envious, intelligent, impulsive, critical and diligent you are more likely to view A more sympathetically.  This framing effect influences and distorts our opinions

Availability cascade – repeating the same message again and again (even if it is not based in fact). Hearing the same message again and again influences our opinions

Bandwagon effect – the herd mentality shaping our views

Bias blindness – belief that we are less biased than others 

Hostile attribution bias – tendency to interpret other people’s behaviours as aggressive, which is heightened by stress and anxiety

Reactance – urge to take the contrary view in order to thwart perceived attempts to dominate or constrain freedom


Have empathy levels declined and is this due to increased screen time?

According to research by the University of Michigan, on 14,000 students over the last thirty years, there has been a 40% decline in empathy, with particularly sharp falls in the last ten years. Empathy comes from the German word einfuhlung and means feeling into another person.

  • Does our time online divert our attention away from observing other people’s facial expressions and body language? 
  • Does this mean that we lose our ability to read other people? 
  • Does our filtered world view and increased biases mean that we find it harder to imagine what another person may be feeling? 
  • Does our time online mean that we simply don’t have the time to think about the plight of other people?  
  • Does spending more time in our filter bubbles make us more interested in servicing our own needs and desires rather than considering the greater good of communities and society? 
  • Does the volume of traumatic  images we see (climate change, violence etc) lead to a compassion fatigue and a desensitisation? 
  • Does our deepening of in group/tribe relationships lead to us dehumanising people from different backgrounds and cultures?

“Most people do not listen with intent to understand; they listen with intent to reply”  Stephen Covey

The book turns to considering ideas on how to emerge from our filter bubbles and reduce the biases with which we see the world. The authors identify research which indicates that reading fantasy books may be helpful. Experiencing imaginary worlds makes us feel both smaller and more connected to something bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it stimulates our tangential thinking and a sense of awe and reduces rigidity.

Throughout the book the authors consider how little of the information available through our senses we are consciously aware of.  Millions of bits of information and interactions with the world around us shape our behaviours, wellbeing and decision making, often without our conscious awareness. 

When we listen to stories, read new books or consider ideas, we briefly burst the filter bubble surrounding us. What we pay attention to shapes us and therefore we need to consider who or what we look at. Do we surround ourselves with positive and upbeat people who help us become better versions of ourselves? When we mindlessly scroll on social media our brains are being shaped by what we see and we are drawn deeper into our filtered view of the world.

“Beware of the stories you recall or tell. Subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness they are altering your world. Without stories we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientations. Even in silence we are living our stories.”

Ben Okri

Takeaways from this post 

Consider your biases – Spend some time on social media and observe some posts. Notice how you feel as you read and look at the posts. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Now re read the list of heuristic biases above. Take a few breaths in through the nose and out through the nose doing some deep diaphragmatic breathing. With understanding of your biases, document in what ways do you think your mood and opinions have been swayed by what you see

Consider your emotional state – Before reading news online or scrolling social media spend a few moments closing your eyes and engaging in deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Think about three that went well and why they went well for you today.  Now spend a few moments considering common heuristic biases noted above.  As you read the news or read people’s posts consider how you feel positively detached from what you see. 

Consider someone else’s view – If you read a post, written by a friend, that annoys you don’t immediately react.  Think back to when that person has been at their best with you.  Consider moments that brought you together.  Now consider your biases. If you feel the need to engage in a texting/posting conversation be aware of the tendency for words to be misconstrued without the vital element of face to face emotional and social signalling. If you feel yourself become emotionally embroiled try and stick to the facts. If things become heated, disengage from the conversation and agree to disagree.  

Develop your empathy – At work spend some time considering what one of your colleagues may be going through at home, in their career and with their health. Try and imagine the world from their shoes rather than trying to imagine you in their shoes. True empathy means using your imagination, being kind, supportive, non-judgmental and deepening your understanding of what makes the other person tick

Share these insights with friends and colleagues