disturbed sleep† lower life satisfaction and poor self-esteem are just some of the negative mental health impacts that research has linked to social media. Somehow the same platforms that can help people feel more connected and well-informed also contribute to loneliness and misinformation. What works and what doesn’t, computer scientists argue, is a function of how these platforms are designed. Amanda Baughan, a graduate student specializing in human-computer interaction, a subfield of computer science, at the University of Washington, believes interdisciplinary research could lead to better social platforms and apps. At the 2022 Association for Computing Machinery Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in May, she presented findings from a recent project examining how social media leads to what psychologists call “dissociation,” or a state of diminished self-reflection and narrowed attention. Baughan spoke to Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas to explain how and why apps need to change to empower the people who use them.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You showed how changing cues and social media presentations can improve well-being, even when people strongly disagree on certain issues. Can you give an example?
Social media design can have a lot of influence on how people interact with each other and how they feel about their online experiences. For example, we’ve found that social media design can help people feel more supportive and nice in moments of online conflict, provided there’s a little push to behave that way. In one study, we designed an intervention that encouraged people who start talking about something controversial in a commentary to switch to direct messaging. People really liked it† It helped resolve their conflict and replicated a solution we personally use: people with a public argument move into a private space to work things out.
You’ve also tackled another problem that stems from social media use, the “30-Minute Ick Factor,” a term coined by Alexis Hiniker, your graduate advisor and a computer scientist at the University of Washington. What is that?
We lose ourselves very quickly on social media. When people come across a platform where they can scroll infinitely for more information, it can be a similar . cause neurocognitive reward system such as anticipating a winning ticket or getting food. It’s a powerful way these apps are designed to Keep an eye on us and scroll.
the “Ick factor of 30 minutes” is when people want to check their social media for a moment, only to find that 30 minutes have passed, and when they realize how much time they have spent, they have this feeling of disgust and disappointment in themselves. Research has shown that people are dissatisfied with this common use of social media. Many people consider it pointless, unproductive, or addictive.
You have argued that this experience is less a matter of addiction and more a matter of “dissociation.” What is that exactly?
Dissociation is a psychological process that comes in many forms. In the most common everyday dissociation, your mind is so absorbed that you are disconnected from your actions. Maybe you are doing the dishes, you start daydreaming and you don’t pay attention to how you do the dishes. Or maybe you’re looking for immersive experiences — watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game — that kill time and make you forget where you are.
During these activities, your sense of reflective self-awareness and the passage of time is reduced. People only realize afterwards that they broke up. Attention is restored with the feeling of “What just happened?” or “My leg fell asleep while we were watching that movie!”
Dissociation can be a positive thing, especially if it’s an engaging experience, meaningful activity, or a necessary break. But it can also be harmful in certain cases, such as gambling, or conflict with people’s time management goals, such as scrolling on social media.
How do you measure people’s dissociation on social media?
We worked with 43 participants using a custom mobile app that we made called Chirp to access their Twitter accounts. The app allowed people to interact with Twitter content, while also allowing us to ask them questions and test interventions. So when people used Chirp, after a certain number of minutes, we sent them a questionnaire based on a psychological scale to measure dissociation. We asked how much they agreed with the statement “I’m currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I’m doing” on a scale of 1 to 5. We also interviewed 11 people to find out more. . The results showed that dissociation occurred in 42 percent of our participants, and they regularly reported losing track of time or feeling “completely eaten.”
You also designed four interventions that modified people’s Twitter experience on Chirp to reduce dissociation. What worked?
The most successful were custom lists and read history labels. In custom lists, we forced users to categorize the content they followed, such as “sports” or “news” or “friends”. Instead of interacting with Twitter’s main feed, they only dealt with content on these lists. This approach was accompanied by a reading history intervention where people were notified if they were aware of the latest tweets. Instead of scrolling further, they were warned about what they had already seen, so they focused on only the latest content. Those interventions reduced dissociation, and when we did interviews, people said they felt safer checking their social media accounts when these changes were present.
In another design, people received timed messages letting them know how long they had been on Chirp and suggesting they leave. They also had the option to view a usage page that showed them stats such as how much time they spent on Chirp in the past seven days. These two solutions were effective when people chose to use them. However, many people ignored them. People also found the timed messages annoying. Those findings are interesting because many of the popular time management tools available to people look like these timeout and usage notifications.
So what could social media companies do differently? And is there an incentive for them to change?
At the moment there is a lot working against people who use social media. It’s impossible to ever fully keep up with a social media feed, especially when you look at the algorithmically inserted content like Twitter’s trending tweets or TikTok’s “For You” page. But I think there’s hope that relatively simple social media design tweaks like custom lists can make a difference.
It’s important to note that the modified lists significantly reduced dissociation for humans, but they did not greatly affect the time spent using the app. To me, that indicates that reducing people’s dissociation may not be as at odds with the revenue goals of social media companies as we might intuitively think.
We’ve found that people care about logging into a platform, connecting with who they want, using the media they like, finding the information that’s relevant, and then being gently removed from the platform in a way that suits them. time management goals. Social media can take on a healthy, meaningful place in people’s lives. But that’s just not the way it’s designed now.
What is the most important thing for people who use social media now to know?
First, don’t pile shame on your social media habits. Thousands of people are employed to make you swipe your thumbs up on that screen and let you do what you are doing. Let’s shift the responsibility for designing secure and satisfying experiences from users to businesses.
Second, get to know the wellness tools already on offer. TikTok has a feature that lets you know every hour that you’ve been scrolling for a while and should consider taking a break. On Twitter, custom lists are a feature that already exists; it’s just not the default option. If more people start using these tools, it may convince these companies to refine them.
The important thing is that you vote for people who are interested in regulating technology because I think that’s where the biggest changes will be made.
Are you a scientist specializing in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed article you’d like to write about for Mind Matters? Send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters Editor-in-Chief, Daisy Yuhas, at [email protected]