Research & resources

Screentime and how it impacts our ability to learn and collaborate

How screen time changes how we see the world

This is the third 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.

In 2007 Apple introduced the iPhone, which sold six million units. In 2019 1.5 billion smartphones were sold. 

We have become so attached to our phones that many of us experience smartphone separation anxiety (where our heart rate and blood pressure increase) when we are detached from them or they fail to work. Have they become part of us? Are they our extended self or almost our souls? We no longer need to remember so much because our extended self remembers and stores things for us. The extended self contains our digital DNA and separation can cause stress and anxiety for many. In addition to being a store for our memories they are increasingly becoming the portal through which our senses navigate the world. 

We only experience a fraction of all that is available to us

Neuroscientist, Manfred Zimmermann, calculated that the human senses are exposed to eleven million bits of information per second through sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Of these, sight represents ten million bits and sound almost one million bits, with the other senses making up the rest. Obviously, these figures are influenced by our abilities and where our attention is directed. For example, blind and deaf people compensate and rely on different senses.  When we are asked to focus upon a particular sensation, such as the smell of a flower, our resources are directed to the sense of smell. In addition to the five senses we also enjoy the internal sense of the sensations in our body. Interoception enables us to direct our attention to our inner world, helping us make sense of our feelings. 

Whatever we pay attention to changes the mix of which sensations we rely on most in that moment. In general, for most people, most of the time, the eyes dominate.  They are thirsty for information and the modern world of memes and flashy images serves them up one after another.   Our infinity scrolls feed our thirst but never allows us to be totally quenched. 

Zimmermann has calculated that out of the eleven million bits of information, we are served up every second, we are only consciously aware of approximately 40 bits.  That means that there is a lot of sub conscious filtering of information before we are aware of it ie our subconscious drives much of our decision making without us having consciously been aware of how the decision was derived.   

Our senses pick up vast quantities of data which hack straight into our mind/body connection, influencing our decision making, behaviours and wellbeing. For example, being surrounded by uptight, negative people has an impact upon  us through subconscious emotional contagion and neural mimicry.   What you look at and who you spend time with has a profound impact on every aspect of your health and success in the world. What you choose to look at changes you. 

How screen time impacts our ability to learn and store information

The following summarises how we process information:

  • Our attention is directed towards something
  • Does the subject matter interest us i.e., are they intrinsically motivated to move towards it and find out more?
  • Are historical dopamine reward channels being triggered? We tend to follow learned patterns of what we like, dislike or are attracted to. And this is where we invest our time and attention
  • Does the path somehow tap into a direction of learning which seems aligned to who we are and where we want to go to?

Take the example of reading a book:

  • Reading
  • Noise outside (potential threat or something interesting_
  • Attention briefly diverted to the noise outside
  • Return to the book
  • Encode information - mix and match what you are reading with other information you have stored in the past
  • Store new knowledge in short term memory
  • Sleep then shifts the information to longer term storage
  • NREM sleep (non rapid eye movement)  helps store the information
  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep involves replaying the days events and trying thought experiments - this helps us deepen memory and also helps us do some synaptic pruning (letting go of memories which don’t add value)

Weapon of mass distraction

Technology can assist learning or dramatically undermine it.  Multi-tasking can be done when we are performing simple actions. For example, when we are walking and talking and chewing gum. But try listening to two conversations at the same time and your ability to make sense of and store the information you are hearing will be dramatically impaired.  If we are constantly surrounded by screen stimulation and alerts which are designed to fragment our attentions we are less able to dive deep into information and make sense of it.  Energy flows where your attention goes. If you aren’t fully invested in what you are doing you won’t store memories so well nor understand complex arguments.

 Think of smart phones and apps as potential weapons of mass distraction. The alerts, beeps and the pulls of stimulating visual images fragments our attention and leads to reaction time switching costs. 

In the workplace a 3 second interruption doubles the error rate in a task. A 4.5 second interruption triples the error rate.

Having multiple apps open, each with competing alert noises, pulls our attention away from task, makes it harder for us to communicate with others and increases our error rates at work.

Takeaways from this post – improve your focus

  • Talk to your work colleagues about creating meeting rules – no phones, making eye contact, having a mindfulness moment at the start of meetings 
  • Where possible set aside times for social media rather than randomly checking throughout the day 
  • Discuss with your teams how to create blocks of focus time at work – for example, agree on focus hours where you all agree to prioritise your own tasks and enable each other to be in flow, free from distraction 
  • Practice mindfulness body scanning techniques. Improve your interoception abilities through sequential observation of how each part of your body feels. This is an ability which can be developed. The more we tune into how we feel the better we can understand, learn from and regulate our emotions and also tune into other better
  • Practice using different senses. For example, set a timer for ten minutes and spend a couple of minutes prioritising a different sense. You could close your eyes and focus on the smells coming into your nose or listen to the sound that seems most distant etc
  • Reduce the number of apps you have open at one time
  • Where possible switch off notifications
  • Practice reading a book
  • Turn your phone to airplane 30 minutes or more before bed
  • Buy an alarm clock
  • Do some breathing or meditation techniques in the morning before your turn your phone back on 
  • Sign up for a meditation course
  • Set a goal to reduce the average social media time you engage in each day – record your goal, keep a record of improvements and look for positive replacement techniques (calling a friend, reading a book, learning to cook a new meal etc)
  • Practice leaving your smartphone at home and going for a walk without it 

How big tech creates brain hacks

How big tech creates brain hacks

How big tech creates brain hacks

This is the second 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.

I’ll explore how humans are hard wired to be social animals and how big tech can take advantage of our brain wiring in order to grab our attention. The article takes five minutes to read.

Social animals

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari explores the idea that we became social animals because of the use of fire. Fire, led to cooking, improvements to food quality and hence the development of bigger brains.  Hunting, gathering and farming also required us to be more social.  The neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran appeared in a great TED Talk about how our mirror neurons enabled us to be empathetic animals and also emulate and share learning much faster than other animals.

Social bonding previously required that we were in close proximity to others. This enabled us to pick up the subtle social and emotional signals from faces, tone of voice and body language.  This subtle and vital language of communication is explored by David Brooks in his brilliant book, The Social Animal. For thousands of years this has been how humans deepened social and emotional communication in order to warn others about danger, explore social hierarchy, teach new skills and to transfer ideas.

Social media mimicking the need to connect socially 

Back in the 1960s Paul Maclean introduced a useful, but somewhat outdated, idea of the triune brain.  The three-part brain is divided into the following areas:

  • Brain stem – Heart rate, breathing, balance
  • Limbic system – Fight, flight, freeze reaction to alert us to and protect us from danger plus awareness of sensations and emotions to bring meaning to our thoughts and behaviours 
  • Cortex – Higher functions of the brain – movement, sensory awareness and understanding, planning, memory, reasoning, morality, insight, stress modulation, attuned communication, empathy and so on 

The authors compare Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid to this simple brain structure and also compare the research of positive psychology researcher, Ed Diener, to the model. Diener found that intimate human connection wasn’t just a nice thing to have but was essential for our wellbeing. Human connection was also a  basic need like warmth, food and shelter. His research indicates that people need the warmth and intimacy of other people [Diener 2011]. Comparing the triune brain to Maslow’s hierarch of needs:

  • High level functions - Middle prefrontal cortex - self-fulfilment, self-awareness
  • Mid-level functions - Limbic region – psychological connection to others, self-esteem, feeling of accomplishment, intimate relationships
  • Low level functions – Brain stem – physical needs, warmth, food, shelter, rest

The brain hacks created by big tech imitate the social connection that we crave but in ways which are not always entirely satisfying. It doesn’t provide (as well as) the real time depth of relationships that we enjoy when we see, feel, smell, talk to and listen to others.

Fast brain, slow brain – hacking into the fast brain

One of the godfathers of US philosophy and psychology, William James, introduced the division of thinking between associative based and reason based thinking. Associative based thinking tends to be fast, emotional, autopilot and lacking in deliberate conscious effort. Reason based thinking involves the higher brain function and is more conscious and deliberate. Fast forward to the early 21st century and Daniel Kahneman, one of the leading researchers in the area of cognitive distortion and bias, developed this concept further in his classic book, “Thinking fast and slow”.  He describes how the slow brain (middle prefrontal cortex) needs to keep an eye on the more fast reactive, emotional brain to ensure that our biases, reactivity and patterned behaviours do not lead to poor decision making and communication. 

The slow brain takes more time to evaluate situations in order to come up with good decisions.  The fast brain deals in repetitive, autopilot quick decisions. It navigates based on deep seated likes and dislikes. The slow brain may make better decisions but in a fast-paced world we need to have a healthy balance of fast and slow simply to navigate a busy world crammed with decisions.  Slowing down, to make more accurate decisions, is more challenging when we are open to so much information coming into our senses. The more information we open ourselves up to the more we default to fast decision making, which in turn deepens our attachment to repetitive thinking patterns and behaviours and more deeply engrains our likes and dislikes.

Dopamine reward structures influenced by online time

Being online provides our senses with a vast amount of information to process. For example, when we engage in infinity scrolls such as on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn we are served up a stream of information which hooks us emotionally.  We are rewarded by things we like to look at. This could be a challenging game, pornographic images or pictures of people, teams and events we love. As we experience these things we enjoy doses of dopamine, which make us feel good and encourage further engagement in the subject. We are served up a steady stream of dopamine which ensures we continue to engage.   However, as we continue to engage, we experience diminishing returns as the content we watch does not satisfy us as much as the first time we see something, which in turn fuels our quest for more content.

The authors point to a re-examination of dopamine and its role as a reward to encourage action. They discuss how, for example, roulette players experience similar increases in dopamine levels regardless of whether they win or frustratingly nearly win.  Dopamine signals that a person is near reward but is not quite there.  The chase may feel  endlessly frustrating, hollow and empty; an endless chase leading to addictive, unrewarding behaviours.

Oxytocin – the love and trust hormone influenced by real human interaction

Another hormone discussed is oxytocin.  Oxytocin could be described as the social bonding hormone.  When we are close to people and feel their love, warmth and touch we experience elevated levels of oxytocin.  People with elevated levels of oxytocin tend to experience more interpersonal trust that others. Mothers with heightened levels of oxytocin gaze more at their children. And creating secure attachment between mother and child elevates oxytocin levels in both. Oxytocin is an important part of deepening human bonds and developing  cohesive societies in which people care, share and work for each other.   

Social media, and screen time in general, can sometimes be a barrier to human bonding. For example, parenting researcher, Brandon McDaniel, coined the term “technoference”. According to his research 35% of adults are on their smart phones for one in five minutes spent at playgrounds.  Too much technoference might undermine understanding and communication between child and adult. Potentially this could lead the child to develop an unsecure or anxious attachment to their parents and others and may result in the child finding it difficult to develop deep, trusting relationships with others. 

Parents send strong signals about how to behave in the world and they may inadvertently be telling children that online time is more important than time spent in the moment with family and friends.   This may also lead to a pattern of behaviour where screen time is used as a psychological crutch or coping mechanism when connecting with people in real time feels too much of a challenge. 

Does increased online time make life too easy (in some ways)?

The Stamford marshmallow experiment of 1960 is a classic psychology experiment which has, pretty much, stood the test of time. Six hundred children were offered one marshmallow now, or none now but two in fifteen minutes. Of the six hundred, approximately one third successfully delayed their gratification and opted for two marshmallows in fifteen minutes. Subsequent research revealed that the children who were able to delay gratification tended to end up with better jobs, be more rewarded and be happier in life. Follow up research in this area indicates that when interpersonal trust is undermined people are less likely to defer gratification.

We live in a world where our desires and wants can be satiated almost instantly. We want food and uber delivers. We want a quick fix of dopamine and exciting stories and images are served up to us. Technology means we are gratified more quickly than in the past and delays increasingly frustrate us. 

Does more screen time adversely impact the depth and quality of human relationships, reduce oxytocin levels and reduce interpersonal trust, making it even harder to delay gratification? Research from around the world has shown a steady decline in both interpersonal trust and the trust people have in organisations. When interpersonal trust declines, we demand even more instant gratification, leading to more online time.  It’s a bit circular and therefore we need to introduce circuit breakers. 

There’s a current craze in the wellbeing media for “dopamine fasting”, enabling your body and brain to reset. One way of doing this is to set your timer for ten minutes, close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.  As your attention drifts keep bringing it back, again and again.

Another factor which impacts impulse control is feeling tired. People who lose a night’s sleep may experience 60% greater amygdala activation than people who are well rested (more fight flight hormones such as cortisol). Part of the fight/flight response is designed to focus our attention on danger, weakness and deficits. In a siege mentality people are more likely to take what they can now because the future seems so uncertain. The more tired you are the harder you may find it to delay gratification. Increasing time on smartphones may decrease our ability to defer gratification and weakens impulse control.

Takeaways from this post

  • Turn off all or most of your notifications whenever you can
  • Reserve time in the day for social media, game playing etc and stick to those times
  • Practice mediations on the breath. Turn off notifications on your phone. Set a timer for ten minutes and practice observing your breath. Every time your attention drifts return to the breath point of focus
  • Aim to regulate your sleep patterns  - ensure the bedroom is dark, give yourself 8 hour plus of potential sleep time, eat at regular times if possible, avoid intense cardio in the evenings, eat light meals in the evening, avoid caffeine after midday, practice breathing exercises before you sleep, buy an alarm clock, avoid screentime for 30 minutes or more before sleep
  • Cuddle the people you love
  • With colleagues, friends and family aim to be as present as you can. Discuss how as a friend or colleague group you can be more present with each other. For example, in work meetings insisting that phones are left out of the room
  • Practice delayed gratification techniques using mindfulness – observe the thought of chocolate!!... and observe how that feels. Observe the desire rise and subside as you practice mindfulness techniques. Practice breath work techniques AND practice replacing an unhealthy habit with a different healthy one

Handling technoference and learning to focus better

Handling digital distraction and learning to focus better

Online or offline? Where is your attention? What is your intention? How are your energy levels?

This article is the first in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time on our wellbeing, and our ability to communicate and make good decisions. The posts are inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner and take about four minutes to read. 

What we pay attention to shapes our minds. Right now, society is dangerously polarised. From either side of politics, we see different facts. The facts we see depend upon the sophisticated algorithms which interpret our past choices and shape our behaviours. Our minds are hacked to keep our eyes on screens to sell things to us and influence our behaviours.  

We need to educate people about how big tech leverages off weaknesses to gain an advantage over us, how this impacts our wellbeing and behaviours and then take steps to interact online in new ways.

The book “Offline” is a useful wake-up call to review our social media and screen time and to try and take some control of our attention so that we can learn to direct it to things in life that help us thrive. 

I bought “Offline” at the start of 2019, and it sat on my bookshelf, gathering dust for a year. I knew, or thought I knew, what it would say; we all spend too much time on screen time, particularly on social media. And this is associated with: 

  • increasing stress, 
  • reducing real-time interaction with people, 
  • hampering our ability to focus, 
  • reducing our empathy levels,
  •  increasing our filter bubble view of the world, 
  • increasing tribalism, 
  • increasing loneliness, 
  • increasing boredom, 
  • reducing self-confidence, 
  • making us more vulnerable to advertisers and marketers and 
  • reducing our energy levels and enthusiasm. 

That, in a nutshell, is it.

I’ve just finished the book, and it has given me some fresh ideas to help me understand the addictive pathways big tech companies are using to manipulate us and some good ideas for overcoming tech addiction and making screen time and social media work for me.

The average person spends about 2 hours on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tinder, LinkedIn or other social media per day. So there are about 720,000 hours in the average life. We spend 240,000 sleeping, about 90,000 hours working and if things remain as they are today, about 55,000 on social media. That’s a hell of a lot of time. 

What does social media do for you? Does it make you connect to people in real-time (for example, to play sports)? Does it help you connect with people with similar hobbies to help you develop and deepen your interests? Does infinity scrolling make you happier? 

This is not a black-and-white book. The authors of the book are not Luddites. Instead, they argue that social media, when used smartly, helps us connect, learn and grow. This book lets people know more about the brain science associated with social media, general screen time and game playing. With this knowledge, we can start to make plans with our family, friends and colleagues to help us get the most out of our online time without falling victim to its dangers. 

I’ve summarised the main points I found helpful from the book in this post. I’ll release the post in chunks over the next few weeks to help make the content easily digestible. Each section takes about 4 to 5 minutes to read.

The sections include:

  1. Information overload
  2. How big tech creates brain hacks
  3. How screen time changes our worldview and our decision making
  4. How big tech draws our attention to the screen
  5. Is social media, online games and general screen time addictive?
  6. Does too much screen time distort how we see the world and undermine our decision-making?
  7. Does social media improve or undermine our wellbeing? No, yes, maybe - it’s complicated.
  8. Screen time, self-efficacy and being in a state of flow
  9. Thriving in a hyper-connected world

Information overload

Big tech companies, such as Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (google) and Apple, have been at the forefront of addictive design. They work to create brain hacks to pull your attention away from what you are doing. They do this by understanding and appealing to people’s deepest desires, and worries and have created an array of colourful and noisy tools to spark interest and draw you in.

There are now some six billion smartphones and tablets on the planet. That’s a lot of noise and, to be honest, a lot of digital pollution. 90% of all the information created by humanity has been produced in the last two years. According to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google if you took all the information created by humankind up to 2003 (from cave paintings to Shakespeare, Love Island and so on), we now create as much content every two days. 

We are deluged by selfies, cat videos, fake news and endless pictures of our kids wearing every conceivable outfit in every location.

This endless diet of new information makes us thirsty for more and constantly looking for new things, opportunities and dangers. Fragmented attention may reduce our ability to be fully engaged in a task. The big tech companies have profited from drawing our attention away from the present. With eyes on the screen, we can be sold to and influenced.  

Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon have a combined worth of approximately $4.5 Trillion (between 7 and 10% of the economic worth of all the economies and all the economic output on the planet).

When the book was written, there were approximately three billion social media users on the planet, two billion Facebook users and 3.5 billion google searches per day. The average adult experiences eleven hours of screen time per day, approximately two hours on social media.

Mind aid tools, external to ourselves, which help us connect with others, learn things and store information, have existed for a long time. For example, in the past, we had maps and telephone books. We rely increasingly on outsourcing our memory (Daniel Wegner, Harvard). However, the tools we used, in the past, such as phone books, did not deliberately distract us.

The book explains how we struggle to cope in the face of an avalanche of information. Many people have heard of Moore’s law; computer processing capacity doubles every 18 months. This extra computing power leads to rapid increases in the information we can access and share. The authors proceed to introduce Amdahl’s law; this compares the increase in the processing power of computers with the abilities of humans to use that information. The authors compare the meteoric rise in computing power with the human capabilities of hearing, vision, visual reaction time, auditory reaction time and working memory. These human abilities have barely changed over time. Not being able to keep up with data availability might be a factor in the rapid increase in stress, anxiety and depression worldwide. Perhaps we can’t cope with the amount of opportunities and threats that come to our senses. The authors question whether constantly scanning for new information makes us feel burnt out. Does unlimited data make us overly compare ourselves to others, think that we can’t handle the volume of data at work or that we are missing out on opportunities?

With so many things competing for our attention, what should we do, and who should we listen to? 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Gandalf and Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. 

Takeaways from this post

  • Consider how much “technoference” you are creating in the world. Do your posts help others thrive and connect? Or are they just more noise?
  • Are the posts you share grounded in a solid evidence base?
  • As you share things and comment, do you keep your emotions balanced? For example, would you repeat your words if you were face to face with the person?
  • What steps can you take to give your attention centres a rest - for example, taking some time to be in nature.