SEATTLE — People staring intently at their phones has become a common scene over the last decade. Smartphone scrolling is simply a way of life for tens of millions nowadays. Now, researchers from the University of Washington investigated if people tend to disassociate while using their phones. Simply put, do they lose track of everything else in their lives while browsing through the digital world?
It’s common for people to wonder where the time went, or just can’t help but keep scrolling, in the midst of a particularly long smartphone session. To better understand this phenomenon, the research team watched as a group of social media users interacted with a “Twitter-like” platform. Sure enough, many appeared to space out while enjoying the app.
Researchers have also put together a few intervention strategies that social media platforms themselves should put in place to help people gain better control over their scrolling habits.
“I think people experience a lot of shame around social media use,” says lead author Amanda Baughan, a UW doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, in a university release. “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.'”
What is dissociation?
Dissociation comes in a variety of forms, such as trauma-based or dissociation of the more everyday variety associated with losing one’s train of thought or losing focus momentarily.
Baughan was first inspired to study everyday dissociation in connection with social media use during the beginning of the pandemic. Due to lockdowns, many people were spending more time on their phones.
“Dissociation is defined by being completely absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing,” Baughan explains. “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.'”
The team at UW designed and constructed an app called Chirp, which connected to each subject’s Twitter account. Via Chirp, the users’ likes and tweets appeared on the real social media platform, but researchers were also able to control the experience; adding new features or surveys whenever necessary.
“One of the questions we had was: What happens if we rebuild a social media platform so that it continues to offer what people like about it, but it is designed with an explicit goal of keeping the user in control of their time and attention?” comments senior study author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor in the UW Information School. “How does a user’s experience with this redesigned app compare to their experience with the status quo in digital well-being design, that is, adding an outside lockout mechanism or timer to police their usage?”
Most social media users experience dissociation
Researchers asked a total of 43 Twitter users from across the U.S. to use Chirp for one month. During each session, after three minutes had passed, users saw a dialog box asking them to rate on a scale from one to five how much they agreed with this statement: “I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I am doing.” This dialog box popped up continuously every 15 minutes.
“We used their rating as a way to measure dissociation,” Baughan continues. “It captured the experience of being really absorbed and not paying attention to what’s around you, or of scrolling on your phone without paying attention to what you’re doing.”
Over the month-long period, 42 percent of the participants (18 people) either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement at least once. After the month had passed, the team conducted in-depth interviews with 11 participants. Seven admitted to experiencing dissociation while using Chirp.
Users also experienced different intervention strategies, separated into two categories: changes in the app’s design (internal interventions) and broader changes duplicating the lockout mechanisms and timers currently available to users (external interventions). Over the course of the month, subjects spent one week with no interventions, one week with just internal interventions, one week with just external interventions, and a final week with both interventions.
When an internal intervention started, the users saw a “you’re all caught up!” message after viewing all tweets. Participants also had to group all accounts they followed into lists.
Meanwhile, for external interventions, subjects had access to a page showing their activity on Chirp during that session. A dialog box also appeared every 20 minutes asking if the user still wanted to keep using Chirp.
Which strategy works best?
Generally, users liked the changes made to the app’s design; the updates allowed many to focus more on content they care about.
“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 says. “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.”
The external interventions, however, produced more varied reviews.
“If people were dissociating, having a dialog box pop up helped them notice they had been scrolling mindlessly. But when they were using the app with more awareness and intention, they found that same dialog box really annoying,” Hiniker notes. “In interviews, people would say that these interventions were probably good for ‘other people’ who didn’t have self-control, but they didn’t want it for themselves.”
So, what’s the root of the problem here?
Study authors posit that this isn’t on users’ lack of self-control. The platforms themselves don’t have the ability to maximize what people actually care about.
“Taking these so-called mindless breaks can be really restorative,” Baughan concludes. “But social media platforms are designed to keep people scrolling. When we are in a dissociative state, we have a diminished sense of agency, which makes us more vulnerable to those designs and we lose track of time. These platforms need to create an end-of-use experience, so that people can have it fit in their day with their time-management goals.”