Attention & Mental Health


Future Generations
Attention & Mental Health
Information Environment
Democratic Functioning
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Attention & Mental Health

While we often use technology because it connects, informs and entertains, there’s clear evidence that it also has serious, negative side effects. These include:

⬆️  Increased anxiety
⬆️  Higher rates of depression
⬆️  More loneliness
⬇️  Lower self-esteem
⬇️  Decreased attention span
⬇️  Less quality sleep

One might think that these effects only occur when someone is overusing technology, social media in particular. But even regular use is detrimental to our mental health. Social media reinforces certain negative patterns by triggering the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes you feel good. The constant novelty and endless scrolling content create an addictive cycle of refreshing, much like someone in Las Vegas playing a slot machine.1 The unpredictability, coupled with social validation features, keeps you coming back.

The content you consistently see also gets reinforced in your brain, causing a host of mental health issues, including:

Low Self-Esteem: Women viewing influencers were less happy with their own faces and men showed an increase in body anxiety. 2
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Poor Attention: MRIs show that heavy users of Facebook develop poor attention, impulsivity and brain patterns that look like ADHD. 3
Anxiety: The more you use social media, the more likely you are to suffer from neuroticism and anxiety. 4

Platforms and apps, like YouTube, often provide a feeling of community. When used for genuine connection, it can be a valuable tool. However, these platforms take advantage of our instinct to belong. Throughout human history, belonging to a group was necessary for our survival; our brains are wired to care what people think of us.

When we receive social validation, the reward centers in our brain light up, triggering a release of more dopamine. Even the expectation of a positive reward releases more of that feel-good chemical which keeps us coming back during times of anxiety and stress.

We become conditioned to seek regular and constant feedback with likes, comments, and shares. This creates a cycle of increased social media use and a decrease in mental health.

Anxiety and low self-esteem increase the desire for more social validation and connection. Social media provides an addicting platform to compete for social validation. Increased social media usage can worsen anxiety and self-esteem. Then the cycle continues.

These apps have been strategically designed to compel us to engage, based on our human instincts. These platforms, now even more powerful with artificial intelligence (AI), are created with the intention of maximizing our engagement and increasing their profit.

They use several clever, but harmful, hacks:

  • Daily Streaks: As used in Snapchat and video games, these tap into our instincts for reciprocity, competition, and social status. The longer the streak, the closer the friendship, or so they’d have you believe.
  • Constant Notifications: These draw you back into the app, giving a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) if you ignore them. Once you’re in the app, they rely on you becoming too distracted to leave.
  • Sensationalized Newsfeeds: As found on Facebook and Twitter, these newsfeeds are designed to show content that will provoke your emotions and make it even harder for you to disengage.
  • Addictive, Immersive Environments: TikTok creates a full-screen immersive, interactive experience so that it gets your full attention. Instagram Reels and YouTube shorts have emerged to compete with TikTok’s powerful algorithm.
30% of users feel anxious if they haven’t checked Facebook in the last two hours. 5
Americans, on average, spend 1 hour each day dealing with distractions. 6
70% of people use their smartphone, including social media, while

Regular social media use also has a negative impact on our attention span. Rapidly changing content and constant interruptions reduce our capacity to pay attention; we become used to quick sound bites and short videos. A recent survey found that the ideal TikTok video was between 21 to 34 seconds, with many avid users reporting that they find longer videos “stressful.” 8

Gloria Mark, a professor at UC Irvine, found that we’ve become so accustomed to interruptions that we begin to create them ourselves. Even when we’re at work, we can’t escape these notifications, with the average person checking their email 74 times a day.

Constant distractions break our focus.
It takes us 23 minutes to fully refocus.
Notifications and alerts continue to disrupt our days.
We begin to crave distractions, and even create them.
Our focus continues to decline, and the process repeats.

The downward spiral of shorter attention spans: Constant distractions break our focus; It takes us 23 minutes to fully refocus; Notifications and alerts continue to disrupt our days; We begin to crave distractions, and even create them; Our focus continues to decline, and the process repeats itself.

Constant social media use also takes a toll on our personal relationships. A 2021 study found that increased Instagram use led to lower relationship satisfaction and higher feelings of jealousy and more conflict.9 It has become too easy to focus on social media over our friends, family, and partners.

It also leads us to compare ourselves to others. Viewing others’ “highlight reels” or “Facetuned” posts can provoke feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Time Well Spent?: In 2022, the average person spent 2 hours and 27 minutes on social media daily. 10
The New Social Currency: People judge themselves by social engagement and their self-worth declines if they don’t get enough. 11
Fraying Relationships: Social media increases social division and anger, impacting everyone’s well-being, even if they’re not on social media. 12

Like it or not, you are part of the Like Economy. Social media has hacked our human psychology and changed our social fabric; with generative AI it will only become more immersive, addictive, and problematic. The effects of social media and constant interruptions are so pervasive that everyone is affected, regardless of whether they have a social media presence or not. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Each of us has the ability to collectively shift the extractive tech ecosystem, even at an individual level. There are solutions.

Advocating for humane technology and preserving our mental health through mindful use can have an enormous impact. We deserve to thrive in tandem with technology, and the health of our society depends on it.

What can you do?

  • Understand how social media & generative AI hacks your brain. This short article, this video, and this podcast are good primers to get started.
  • Take control of your tech use. We’ve put together a set of tools to help you rebalance your relationship with technology.
  • Rebuild your attention span. Mindfulness and meditation are proven to help with focus and attention. Here are some great resources to get you started.
  • Spend time outside. Research shows that spending time in nature can lower cortisol levels, reduce stress, and improve sleep.
  • Try a Digital Detox. Even a few hours away from your screens each day can help you reset.

    • Schedule time away from your phone each day
    • Limit apps that you are spending too much time on (try temporarily deleting or restricting with phone settings)
    • Silence your notifications
    • Create no-phone areas
    • Plan a weekend away from your screens entirely
  • Socialize without social media. Join a book club, find a local meetup, or join a fitness group. Find connection away from your phone.
  • Learn something new. Take a language class or learn an instrument. Learning new things promotes neuroplasticity and healthy cognitive function.
  • Educate your community. Host a screening and discussion group of The Social Dilemma.

Our Resources

Episode 60

Can Psychedelic Therapy Reset Our Social Media Brains?

Founder and Director of MAPS, Rick Doblin, discusses the healing power of psychedelics and how they might fit into a more humane future.
Episode 19

The Fake News of Your Own Mind with Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman

Meditation experts Jack Kornfield and Trudy Goodman talk about how to escape the mental loops of anxiety and fear and quiet the mind.
Episode 8

The Opposite of Addiction. Guest: Johann Hari

What causes addiction and depression? Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream, traveled some 30,000 miles in search of an answer.
Episode 7

Pardon the Interruptions. Guest: Gloria Mark

UCI Professor Gloria Mark talks about the “science of interruptions” and how we can stop forfeiting our attention to constant notifications.

How Social Media Hacks Our Brains

Six persuasive techniques that social media platforms use to “hack” our brains in order to generate engagement and increase profit.
Learn More

Take Control of Your Tech Use

Immediate steps anyone can take to limit time on tech devices and increase digital well-being.
Learn More

Digital Well-Being Guidelines

Family guidelines that help parents navigate the use of technology at home and in school.
Learn More

Join the Movement

Subscribe to our newsletter, The Catalyst, to receive our latest thinking and resources on redesigning the technology ecosystem.

Partner Organizations

Link to Omidyar Network websiteLink to Omidyar Network websiteLink to Omidyar Network website

More Resources

  • Calm: Leading meditation app helps you reduce anxiety by creating calm and stress-free time in your day.
  • Insight Timer: Online community for meditation featuring guided meditations, music and talks posted by contributing experts.
  • Ten Percent Happier: Discover guided meditations from experts and practical teachings that you can carry anywhere.
  • Headspace: Zone in on what matters most with a meditation practice that focuses on your progress and improved well-being over time.
  • One Giant Mind: A free app that teaches you how to meditate in 12 simple steps.
  • Freedom: Freedom is the app and website blocker for Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, and Chrome, used by over 2,000,000 people to reclaim focus and productivity.
  • One Sec: One Sec forces you to take a deep breath whenever you open social media apps. Friction removes instant gratification and makes distracting apps less appealing.
  • #HalfTheStory Project: An org that grew out of conversations about influencer/creator mental health. Half the Story has started partnering with schools and universities to do programs around youth mental health and social media.
  • Hope Lab: Develops software that addresses social isolation, which undergoes rigorous IRB-approved studies for effectiveness.
Footnotes & Further Reading
  1. Mass General Brigham McLean, “The Social Dilemma: Social Media and Your Mental Health”
  2. Seekis, Veya & Bradley, Graham & Duffy, Amanda. (2020). Social networking sites and men’s drive for muscularity: Testing a revised objectification model. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. 22. 10.1037/men0000265.
  3. Hadar, A. A., Hadas, I., Lazarovits, A., Alyagon, U., Eliraz, D., & Zangen, A. (2017). Answering the missed call: Initial exploration of cognitive and electrophysiological changes associated with smartphone use and abuse. PLOS ONE, 12(7), e0180094.
  4. Andrews, N. P., Yogeeswaran, K., Wang, M., Nash, K., Hawi, D. R., & Sibley, C. G. (2020). Is Social Media Use Changing Who We Are? Examining the Bidirectional Relationship Between Personality and Social Media Use. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(11), 752–760.
  5. Seekis, Veya & Bradley, Graham & Duffy, Amanda. (2020). Social networking sites and men’s drive for muscularity: Testing a revised objectification model. Psychology of Men & Masculinities. 22. 10.1037/men0000265.
  6. Pang, A. S. (2013). The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. Hachette UK.
  7. Smartphone Use While Driving Grows Beyond Texting | AT&T. (n.d.).
  8. TikTok is killing your brain, one short-form video at a time. (2022, September 18). Social Media Psychology.
  9. Bouffard, S., Giglio, D., & Zheng, Z. Z. (2021). Social Media and Romantic Relationship: Excessive Social Media Use Leads to Relationship Conflicts, Negative Outcomes, and Addiction via Mediated Pathways. Social Science Computer Review, 40(6), 1523–1541.
  10. Global daily social media usage 2022 | Statista. (2022, August 22). Statista.
  11. Sharma, A., Sanghvi, K. A., & Churi, P. (2022). The impact of Instagram on young Adult’s social comparison, colourism and mental health: Indian perspective. International Journal of Information Management Data Insights, 2(1), 100057.
  12. Barrett, P., Hendrix, J., & Sims, G. (2022, March 9). How tech platforms fuel U.S. political polarization and what government can do about it. Brookings.