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 

Share these insights with friends and colleagues