Back in 2008, when the iPhone was still a novelty, Linda Stone was already investigating her concerns that constant connection to the Internet could be eroding our attention spans and causing stress.
An executive at Microsoft who had previously worked at Apple, Stone observed that computer users exist in a state of “continuous partial attention.”
Determined to figure out why, Stone approached people at Seattle-area coffee shops and asked to examine their posture as they used their laptops and shiny new smartphones. Most had their shoulders hunched, leaving their chests concave — a setup that makes it difficult to take in the nice deep breaths that signal calmness and readiness to learn something new.
Is the Internet Making Us Stressed
Out and Stupid?
Constant connection to the Internet contributes to
distraction and stress. But a handful of people are trying to find ways for us to relax again without pulling the plug.
Stone coined another phrase: “email apnea.” In other words, we don’t breathe fully when we’re staring at a screen.
“There’s a psycho-physiology to attention,” Stone, a technology consultant, told Healthline. “When I’m able to pay close attention, I’m able to breathe more fully. When I’m excited or scared I’m breathing more rapidly.”
And just as smiling can make you feel happy, hunching nervously can make you more likely to experience stress.
“If I’m at my computer and I start to shift into a posture where I can’t breathe well, my attention and my emotions shift, too,” Stone said.
The research on how social media affects our mental health has garnered the most attention in public debates, but it is, scientifically speaking, very much inconclusive, according to Patricia Wallace, Ph.D., the author of “The Psychology of the Internet.”
“It depends on what you’re doing,” Wallace said.
But studies on how the Internet affects our ability to think, focus, and relax have arrived at a much more consistent conclusion: Stone was right. Americans spend more and more time glued to their screens, but doing so is shrinking our attention spans and ramping up our stress levels.
A handful of people are starting to do something about it.
In a recent overview of research into how constant access to the Internet affects human thinking, Kep Kee Loh, of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, and Ryota Kanai, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, validate Stone’s early alert that online environments result in partial attention.
For instance, when a person is reading hyperlinked text, a certain amount of brainpower goes into ignoring the visual stimuli offered by links and the decision-making task of whether or not to click on them. That brainpower becomes unavailable for interpreting and remembering the text.
(This was largely the thesis of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, “The Shallows,” but scientists cautioned that the book got ahead of peer-reviewed research.)
Loh and Kanai also found troubling, but not conclusive evidence, that constant shallow attention impedes the development of the brain connections that make deeper focus possible.
But when people describe their own experiences with Internet technology, what they describe has more to do with multitasking.
Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, has documented how much the average office worker is interrupted, whether by coworkers, digital reminders or private thoughts.
Her findings? Adults in the workforce are interrupted far more often today than they were in decades past. And college students switch tasks twice as often as those already in the workforce.
Why Can’t I Focus?
It turns out that humans are not at all good at resisting the distractions presented by incoming emails and app notifications. Which is unfortunate because we’re not good at multitasking either.
Multitasking is, in fact, almost entirely a myth. What we do in reality is cycle rapidly between tasks. With rare exceptions, such as when the two tasks are simple or use totally different parts of the brain, the cycling makes us less efficient at both tasks.
“It’s impacting our productivity because people are not able to focus as deeply as they would like,” Mark said.
The more adults — including those young adults who grew up with the Internet — switch between tasks, the less satisfaction they report with their work, Mark has found. They also report higher stress levels.
That suggests that Internet use plays an important role in our physical health, too, because stress is a risk factor for nearly every illness in the book.
Even people who are generally good at ignoring extraneous information are lured into multitasking by digital distractions, according to Susan Ravizza, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.
People with higher IQs — who usually distinguish themselves partly by their ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli — can’t seem to resist the lure of the Internet.
After seeing many of her students dallying on their phones in class, Ravizza turned her research lens onto the students in a colleague’s introductory lecture course. The smarter students, gauged by ACT scores, were just as likely as their less-bright classmates to use their laptops or smartphones for non-academic purposes while in class. The smarter students weren’t any more likely to believe that their online dalliances hurt their academic performance.
But Ravizza’s study also turned up concrete evidence that online dilly-dallying eroded test scores in all students: Proof, she said, that the smart students weren’t just checking their phones when the class was covering material they had already mastered.
“It’s like texting and driving. Everyone thinks they can do it, but no one can,” Ravizza told Healthline.
Ravizza plans to include the graphs from this study in her fall lectures to try to persuade students to ignore their devices in class.
It’s not just that students are bored in class or that white-collar workers are bored at the office. Even when we are with friends or outdoors or on vacation, we find ourselves drawn to our devices.
Mark’s research offers a compelling explanation of why.
In the hour following a period during which we are regularly interrupted — for example by incoming emails — we are more far likely to interrupt ourselves, switching between this task and that task that we want to get done. For every external interruption we get in hour one, we are nearly 10 percent more likely to interrupt ourselves in hour two.
After seeing emails, texts and social alerts pop up all day, we subconsciously expect them to come in the evening or over the weekend, and the expectation makes us unable to relax or focus completely on anything else.
It’s as if we were constantly waiting for the doorbell to ring.
Higher stress levels, such as those observed among multitaskers, make it harder to sleep. Screen time also contributes directly to insomnia, which affects four in 10 Americans. The blue light that computers emit interferes with the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells the body to go to sleep when it gets dark.
Poor sleep and stress can form a vicious cycle, with stress interfering with sleep, and lack of sleep making stress harder to manage, according to the American Psychological Association.
It’s no wonder, then, that the toll Internet surfing puts on our sleeping habits is the basis of the nagging feeling Stone is having these days.
“I’ve had this hunch for at least a decade that if you look at a chart graphing the trajectory of the increase of personal technology in our lives, that chart would match almost exactly the increase in diagnoses of ADHD, obesity and chronic disease,” Stone said.
Lack of sleep, of course, makes us less focused and less able to learn. It also feeds into the same old habits. Late-night Internet use and lack of sleep each led people to more digital multitasking the next day, Mark’s studies have shown.
No Rest for the Weary
Technology designer Tristan Harris says that Internet companies are in the business of “hijacking” our attention. It’s hard to argue with someone who works at Google.
“We live in an attention economy,” Harris says in one version of a talk he often gives to other tech designers. “So whether you’re building a meditation app or an informative website or you’re building an addictive game, you’re all competing for attention. Which means that you win by getting people to spend time and to come back.”
The consumer is outgunned by the website operators, many of which, like Google, have research and development budgets to throw into doing what it takes to keep consumers using their sites.
“The thing is, there’s kind of a whole industry that’s helping people to do this,” Harris continued in the same talk. “It kind of becomes a race to the bottom of the brainstem to seduce instincts into getting us to spend time.” (Harris didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
Companies like Google (and Healthline, for that matter) track their success in terms of how many users spend how much time on their websites. The suggestions for further reading you see at the bottom of a page serve that purpose, for example.
The suggestions can be helpful, leading you to more information you want, or they can lead you within a couple of clicks to YouTube videos of baby otters.
Relatively few companies track how happy users are with the content they’ve seen.
Services like email, instant messaging, texting and social media notify message recipients immediately and assertively that they have a new message. This you’ve-got-mail approach was a welcome occasional distraction in 1993, when email was still new. Now, it’s the beeping, chiming, vibrating rhythm of life.
What if, Harris asks, instead of setting out to make it possible for users to communicate immediately, messaging apps set out to make it possible for their users to communicate well?
Say you’re at work and you’re reminded — whether by an email, a sticky note or a sudden thought — that you need a document from a coworker. It’s not urgent, but rather than risk forgetting, you cross it off your mental list by instant messaging or emailing the coworker. The coworker immediately gets a pop-up email or an instant message, forcing him or her to deal with your need right away.
You’ve hijacked your coworker’s attention with the help of technology.
A small technical shift is all it would take to let both people get their work done on their own schedules, Harris argues. What if messaging apps included a priority mode, which Harris dubs “focused” mode, that would only allow messages marked urgent through?
Harris’s ideas aren’t moving the needle on public debate yet, but he’s talking directly to the people who build the Internet, urging them to change some of their most established benchmarks of success.
Does It Have to Be This Way?
“I think it’s a phenomenally important dialogue,” Stone said. “I think user interface designers will be influenced by that conversation and people will start to realize that they have choices and that if they have choices that are more respectful to them as users, they’ll take them.”
Stone now devotes herself to consulting with tech companies to help them make their products more human-friendly.
But will small tweaks have a real chance of staunching the tide of distractions served up a million per second? The experts think they will, as consumers come to expect them and demand more.
Already there are apps to block Internet access for a time or to adjust the color of the screen later in the day so it aligns better with our natural sleep rhythms.
“The Internet will change. It’s continually in beta mode,” Mark said. And people will be able to wait while it does.
“Human beings are remarkably resilient,” she said.