The Double Burden of Distractions

How social media both increases cognitive demand and decreases our capacity.

Why The Attention Economy Increases Cognitive Demand

In today’s digital world, a popular expression is: “If something is free, you are the product.” The phrase refers to how much online content is constructed to steal your attention. The business models of some of the world’s largest companies are centered not around maximizing your productivity but rather around capturing and holding your attention. Because of this, we have begun referring to our current society as an attention economy. Social media, in particular, is built to catch your attention and be maximally addictive. The result of the attention economy is a constant flow of distractions. 

The ability to control your attention, i.e. to willingly focus on the task at hand and to follow a plan rather than being distracted by new stimuli, is related to cognitive capacity: the capacity to control attention is largely synonymous with working memory capacity. Children who have lower working memory capacity than adults are more easily distracted. We have studied the brain mechanisms of this in detail in previous studies (Edin et 2007, Olesen et al. 2007). Similarly, adults with low working memory capacity and individuals with ADHD are more easily distracted. 

An increased amount of distractions in the environment thus puts a higher demand on our capacity to control our attention. What happens in the long run? Do distractions function as cognitive training, improving our control, or is it the other way around?

How Social Media Decreases Your Capacity

In our latest article (Nivins et al., pre-print) we studied the effect of using social media, playing video games, or watching TV/video on symptoms of inattention in children. We analyzed data from children between the ages of 10 to 14. We controlled for baseline symptoms and other background variables, including socioeconomic status and genetic predisposition. Then, we used a longitudinal design and analyzed the change over 4 years. We found that children who used social media more than their peers had increased symptoms of attention over this time period. This phenomenon was not seen for time spent with video games or watching videos/TV. 

These results closely mirror the effect of digital media on intelligence found in an earlier publication (Sauce et al. 2022). Here, video games have a positive effect on intelligence, while social media has a negative effect. The yearly effect size for social media (standardized beta ≈ 0.07) was about the same for both inattention and intelligence. Over a two-year period, this was not significant. But the effect accumulates, and over a 4-year period, the effect was around 0.3, i.e. social media impaired attention with 0.3 standard deviations. This is in itself a significant effect. But what is worrying is that it is likely to continue to accumulate over the rest of adolescent development and perhaps longer. 

These results make intuitive sense given that cognitive abilities are malleable. Playing video games requires controlled attention, which leads to a better cognitive ability with time (although doing your math homework is a better usage of time). Social media is associated with constant distractions, which prevents controlled attention. A contributing factor could also be the effect social media has on psychological well-being, in girls aged 11-14 (Orben 

This means that an increase in the amount of distractions comes with a double burden: it increases the demand for control of attention but it decreases the attentional capacity. The gap between demand and capacity widens. This impacts our ability to carry out the task at hand, learn, and think through a critical problem or stick to an interesting thought.

Distractions as Cognitive Pollution

The chemical revolution and electrification were transformative revolutions because they gave us knowledge and technology that could be applied to many different areas for many different purposes. Digitalization is similarly a transformative revolution that has radically changed the conditions for our civilization. This has both good and bad sides, where we have not yet identified the many negative side effects. The bad sides of digitalization, such as distractions and other negative effects on learning, can be compared with the use of lead in paint and gasoline. Lead directly impairs brain development and decreases intelligence. It was an unintentional spread of cognitive impairments with potentially long-term effects on societal development. But once we identify the problem, we can do something about it – cognitive environmental cleanup.

References

Bruno Sauce, Magnus Liebherr, Nicholas Judd, Torkel Klingberg .The impact of digital media on children’s intelligence while controlling for genetic differences in cognition and socioeconomic background. Journal Article. Scientific reports, 12 (1), pp. 7720, 2022.

Fredrik Edin, Julian Macoveanu, Pernille Olesen, Jesper Tegnér, Torkel Klingberg. Stronger Synaptic Connectivity as a Mechanism behind Development of Working Memory-related Brain Activity during Childhood. Journal Article. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19 (5), pp. 750–760, 2007, ISSN: 0898-929X.

Nivins,  Mooney, M; Klingberg, T (PsyArXiv). Screen time use and longitudinal effect on ADHD symptoms in children.  https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/m3bkh

Pernille J Olesen, Julian Macoveanu, Jesper Tegnér, Torkel Klingberg. Brain activity related to working memory and distraction in children and adults. Journal Article. Cerebral Cortex, 17 (5), pp. 1047–1054, 2007, ISSN: 10473211.

Orben, A; Przybylski, A.K., Blakemore, S-J, Kievit, R (2022). Windows of developmental sensitivity to social media. Nature Communications, 13, 1649.

Torkel Klingberg

Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience

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