With rates of ADHD diagnoses on the rise, it’s easy to point the finger to technology as the scapegoat. There is a fear that our brain is getting sidelined – that we can’t focus on talking to the person in front of us because of the constant demands on our attention by social media.

We used to use our attention like a spotlight—focusing on one thing at a time. I call this the Spotlight Brain.

But today’s world isn’t like that—we have to process information very quickly. It’s hard to use the Spotlight Brain to stay on top of it all the tweets, updates, and notifications. And sometimes we would miss out on noticing important information.

A classic psychology experiment illustrates this Spotlight Brain. Participants were showed a video of people passing a ball. They were asked to count the number of ball passes. Halfway through the video, a man in a gorilla suit stands among the ball passers.

At the end of the video, participants were asked if they noticed anything unusual. Because of the Spotlight Brain, many people did not even notice the man in a gorilla suit!

But social media has changed the way we use our brain. Now we use it like a floodlight—this allows us to work with more than one thing at a time. We can pay attention to multiple pieces of information. I call this the Floodlight Brain.

In order to understand the link between the Floodlight Brain and social media, I conducted an experiment. I gave almost 300 young adults a Sustained Attention task (often used in studies on ADHD). Participants responded to two different versions. In one version, the participants responded to the computer screen by pressing the spacebar for every number presented except the number five (Version A). In the other version, participants responded to the computer screen by pressing the spacebar only for the number five (Version B).

I also gave them a Social Media Questionnaire. The questions reflected both Active engagement ("How often do you comment on your friends’ photos or write on their wall on social networking sites?") and Passive engagement ("How often do you check tweets of famous people on Twitter?"). Based on their responses, I created an Active/Passive index by averaging participants’ engagement in various activities (example: posting status updates, commenting on friends’ updates, etc.)

  • The results showed that the Active users were more accurate initially in the Sustained Attention task compared to the Passive users.
  • They also had this Floodlight Brain compared to the Passive users—they were nearly five times less likely to miss important information.

So social media can change our attention—but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

WATCH MY TEDX TALK ON THIS TOPIC

About the Author

Tracy P Alloway Ph.D.

Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of North Florida. Formerly, she was director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan, U.K.  

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