Wait, what? On Social Network Use and Attention
by Alyssa Deitchman
Before you log on to one of the numerous social networking sites you use to update the world about everything you’re probably doing right this moment, try to harness your attention toward reading this article. It seems simple enough, but in practice, such focus may be actually harder to achieve than you might think. While fleeting attention could be attributed to a variety of explanations, social network-ing frequently takes the blame. The increase in social networking sites has certainly infiltrated our culture, impacting the way today’s generation communicates and works — all at 250kb per minute. Researchers are beginning to speculate that social networking usage negatively impacts the attention span of youth and adolescents (Greenfield 2009; Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009; Wintour 2009). In fact, many scholars relate social networking sites to the tendency to multitask, or engage in multiple activities simultaneously (Greenfield 2009; Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009; Wintour 2009). The impact of social networking sites on attention has been a heated source of debate. In order to assess the issue fully, the neurological mechanisms of multitasking, as well as how social networking allows for such activities need to be evaluated. This article will discuss how exactly social networking sites relate to multitasking and if you should be concerned.
How does social networking usage correlate with a tendency to multitask? The way in which past research has conceptualized social networking websites has led to investigation of the negative impact of their impact on youth’s attention. Such conceptualization is partially due to the design of social networking sites themselves, not just how and why they are used. The Facebook platform, for example, is designed in such a way where many things are occurring simultaneously including a live chat, a live, real-time updated home screen, and added elements of personal status and picture updates. Users of these sites learn how to manage all of this stimulation and compartment-alize all the different situations that are being played out within the same visual
field (Wallis, 2007). The idea of simultan-eous simulations may provide some explanation to how adolescents handle other forms of media stimulus. The phenomenon is referred to as “media multitasking” by researchers. This is “a person’s consumption of more than one item or stream of content at the same time” (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner 2009, p. 3). Computers have made media multitasking easy, if not encouraging multitasking entirely (Foehr, 2006). In a study, the participants classified as “heavy media multitaskers” were found to be more susceptible to inference from environ-mental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. However, this same group performed worse on a test of task-switching ability (Ophil, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). Researchers speculate this is due to media multitasker’s ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. This suggests that media multitasking is directly associated with a detrimental approach to fundamental information processing. Multitasking is inefficient in this regard, because heavy media multitaskers were unable to effectively switch tasks. This is surprising because multitasking is the continuous involvement of task switching. If the participants in this study were less inclined to efficiently task-switch or filter out irrelevant interferences, multitasking is harmful on many levels. Heavy media multitaskers would be surprised by these findings.
In the same study, 97% of the participants claimed their ability to multitask led to increased efficiency in their day-to-day lives (Wallis, 2007). Christine Rosen (2010) elaborates on multitasking, calling it “a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously” (p.2). In fact, researchers are suggesting that “decades of research indicate the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks” (Wallis, 2007, p. 34). John Grafman, chief of Cognitive Neuroscience at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains the frequent lack of depth of any tasks being performed while multitasking will make surface-level output satisfactory. This implies that youth will no longer strive for in-depth focus on a task and will instead conduct activities in a surface level manner (Wallis, 2007). If youth are conducting activities in a surface manner, the assumption is that attention will suffer as a result of the multi-tasking required of social networking sites.
While research has illustrated the negative impact social networks have on attention, it is imperative to address the means through which this phenomenon occurs. British Neurologist Lady Greenfield connects social media and attention at idea that social networking allows for “instant gratification” due to the instantaneous nature that operates at “unrealistic timescales”. The short-attention-span issue is linked to the idea that social networking encourages the reward center of the bran to signal as it does with drug use, due to the instantly gratifying nature of these simulated interactions. Greenfield proclaims that the rapidly occurring interchanges present in these websites will accustom the brain to operate on these unrealistic timescales. As a result, when one finds that responses are not immediately forthcoming, Greenfield suggests that behaviors of Attention Deficit Disorder will become prevalent in adolescents, a diagnosis on the rise for years (Wintour, 2009). While Greenfield raises an interesting argument, many aspects of perception such as perceiving, listening and touching can indeed be performed simultaneously with action planning and movement. The brain is adept to this “toggling” action, as it naturally occurs in the anterior prefrontal cortex. More specifically, Brodmanns Area 10, the segment of the brain associated with creating and maintaining both short-term and long-term goals, is responsible for this adeptness (Wallis, 2007). The brain can handle multitasking, but the extent is limited. Most theories attest there is a limit to what our brains can actually process simultaneously (Meyer & Kieras, 1997; Pashler, 2000). Though the brain can manage or perceive two stimuli in parallel timeframes, our ability to respond to
and/or process them is limited. This phenomenon is referred to as the psychological refractory period (PRP). The PRP represents the extra time required to respond to a stimulus when conjoined with an additional stimulus. One can visualize this as a “bottleneck” in processing. The bottleneck occurs at the retrieval, or action planning segment, but how the simultaneous tasks are managed in the brain needs further research (Foehr, 2006). As this phenomenon relates to media multitasking, young people are not exactly trying to process “non-complementary messages” simultaneously, but are instead switching back and forth between activities. Current research is lacking on the effects of constant task switching between media in a modern media environment to properly address this issue (Foehr, 2006).
By analyzing both the connection between social networking and attention in the two frames of the physical appearance of the websites to the underlying neurological responses to these appearances, one can gain a clearer understanding of the connection here. While social networking encourages multitasking, which can potentially be detrimental to the depth of focus youth is able to allot to a specific task at a time, there is a blatant lack of research on the possible positive outcomes. For instance, “Media users are learning at a young age how to juggle multiple activities…and use existing technologies in creative ways, albeit sometimes not originally intended” (Foehr, 2006, p. 5). Additionally, living in the modern world demands that youth be able to synchronize tasks (Foehr, 2006). Most importantly, constructs such as race, age income and education all predict media use, but do not indicate the likelihood to media multitask, making a significant bracket of today’s youth susceptible to this ever-increasing trend (Foehr, 2006). Some experts argue that if young people media multitask and do so from an early age, our genetics will adapt and we will be able to eventually, through natural selection, be able to do so more efficiently (Foehr, 2006). Regardless, the issue of social network’s impact on attention raises many questions for our generation. If young people’s media attention is so divided, how can they be reached? Can multitaskers be reached at all? If so, what’s the best medium through which to accomplish this? Are the long-term effects seriously detrimental to our ability as a generation to focus? While more research is needed to assess these questions with confidence, we can conclude that a certain relationship does exist between social networking usage and attention.
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