New research at the University of Washington (UW) reports that people often dissociate when surfing social media. The paper adds that tools designed to help us surf these networks mindfully can help people maintain more control over their online experiences.
If you’ve ever been deep inside a thrilling book, you might know the unique feeling of being transposed into another place, and losing track of your surroundings. That state is known as ‘immersion’ colloquially or, more academically, as ‘dissociation’, and exists as a spectrum: it can become more or less intense.
New research shows that people can enter such a state of dissociation while surfing social media. This might contribute to some people feeling ‘out of control’ after spending a lot of time on social media platforms. Although this dissociative process may sound pretty intuitive to anyone who’s ever kept scrolling through their feed, it is the first time such a response to social media surfing has been documented academically.
“I think people experience a lot of shame around social media use,” said lead author Amanda Baughan, a UW doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.
“One of the things I like about this framing of ‘dissociation’ rather than ‘addiction’ is that it changes the narrative. Instead of: ‘I should be able to have more self-control,’ it’s more like: ‘We all naturally dissociate in many ways throughout our day — whether it’s daydreaming or scrolling through Instagram, we stop paying attention to what’s happening around us.'”
For the study, the team constructed a Twitter-like platform to investigate whether and how some people are spacing out while they are surfing social media. This app — called Chirp — was connected to the participants’ Twitter accounts and would show likes and tweets from the real social media platform, but allowed the researchers better control over the participants’ experience by adding new features such as pop-up surveys. This step was necessary to allow for the implementation of intervention strategies that could help users better control their attention and time while scrolling.
The team worked with 43 Twitter users from across the U.S., and these participants switched to Chirp for a month. After the first 3 minutes of use in each session, participants would be shown a dialog box asking them to rate on a scale of 1-5 how much they agreed with the statement “I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I am doing”. The same dialogue box would then be presented to them every 15 minutes.
The ratings were used as a way to measure dissociation, according to the authors, and it showed that 42% (18) of the participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement at least once over their month of use. During in-depth interviews with 11 of the participants, held after the experimental period, 7 of them described experiencing dissociation while using Chirp.
“Dissociation is defined by being completely absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing,” Baughan said. “But people only realize that they’ve dissociated in hindsight. So once you exit dissociation there’s sometimes this feeling of: How did I get here? It’s like when people on social media realize: ‘Oh my gosh, how did 30 minutes go by? I just meant to check one notification.'”
In addition to the pop-up survey, Chirp users experienced different intervention strategies in two broad categories. The first involved changes to the app’s design (internal interventions) or interventions mimicking the lockout mechanisms and timers that are already available on some platforms or as 3rd party software (external interventions).
Examples of an internal intervention is a participant getting a “you’re all caught up!” message when they had seen all new tweets, or being prompted to organize their followed accounts into lists. External interventions included giving participants access to a page that displayed their activity for the current Chirp session, or a popup that asked them if they wanted to continue using Chirp every 20 minutes.
During the experimental month, users spent one week without interventions, one week with only internal interventions, one week with only external interventions, and one week with both active at the same time.
Overall, the participants reported liking the changes that Chirp brought to the table; internal interventions were the most appreciated, reporting that it helped them focus more on what they actually cared about and removing wasted time.
“One of our interview participants said that it felt safer to use Chirp when they had these interventions. Even though they use Twitter for professional purposes, they found themselves getting sucked into this rabbit hole of content,” Baughan said. “Having a stop built into a list meant that it was only going to be a few minutes of reading and then, if they wanted to really go crazy, they could read another list. But again, it’s only a few minutes. Having that bite-sized piece of content to consume was something that really resonated.”
External interventions generated more mixed reviews. While it did help participants notice when they were dissociating, it also got in the way of them using the app with awareness and purpose — in essence, it served its intended role, but it quickly became “really annoying” when users were not dissociating. Another interesting finding here is that participants often told researchers that such interventions would probably be useful “for other people” who “lacked self-control”, but didn’t want to use them themselves.
Based on the results, the team believes that the issue here is not a lack of self-control on the part of users, but instead, that the platforms themselves are not designed to their best interests. Platforms, Baughan explains, are designed to keep people scrolling. The end to such unproductive dissociation would require social media platforms to “create an end-of-use experience so that people can have it fit in their day with their time-management goals.”
The paper ““I Don’t Even Remember What I Read”: How Design Influences Dissociation on Social Media” has been presented at the CHI ’22: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and is available on the Asociation for Computing Machinery’s Digital Library.