The time we spend on our phones can run easily from an easygoing couple of minutes to a dissociative hour of doom-scrolling where we finally look around and say, “How did I kill a whole hour?”
These “dissociative states” are common. We get into them when we’re so focused on a task or even doodling in a notebook, but they are becoming more and more prevalent with our phones and social media.
Researchers from the University of Washington developed an app aimed at addressing this lack of scrolling control, bordering on an addiction.
“I think people experience a lot of shame around social media use,” says lead author Amanda Baughan, a doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. “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.’”
While it is important not to term it an “addiction,” something needs to be done to give social media users more control over their screen time. They noticed with participating Twitter users, that participants were zoning out more than usual. And the dissociative states only increased in frequency over the Pandemic.
The answer turned out to be another app on their phones. They developed the app Chirp, directly connected to the participants’ Twitter accounts. Users can still like and tweet via Chirp, but researchers could control users’ experience, admiring new features, or pop-up surveys.
“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?” says senior author Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor in the Information School.
The team tested Chirp on 43 Twitter-using participants, and after each session, a message would pop up: “I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I am doing.” Users would have to give a 1-5 answer. The intervening questions were meant to assess involvement, and 43 percent of the participants initially answered they were zoning out when using it. People were disassociating, which in itself isn’t bad as an occasional break. Social Media, however, is meant to keep us scrolling and continue this dissociative state.
Using Twitter via Chirp, however, participants seemed to enjoy the intervening checkups, reminding them how much time they spent on social media.
“One of our interview participants says 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.”
Source Study: ACM Digital Library — Monitoring Screen Time or Redesigning It? | CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (acm.org)