Is Social Media Hijacking Your Brain? Spontaneity May Be the Antidote

August 17, 2023
Graphic of a thought process overlayed on a side profile of a face

Hey, look at this! A UVA researcher says he may have discovered a secret to counteract how digital distractions sometimes seize control of our brains. (Illustration by Alexandra Angelich, University Communications)

We know from experience that digital technologies such as social media make us more distracted. But University of Virginia researcher Zachary Irving says they’ve also changed how we’re distracted.

“Our minds used to wander during idle times, like riding a bus or walking,” said Irving, an assistant professor of philosophy. “Digital distractions are instead designed to leave us ‘stuck’ on a salient topic.”

What might have resulted in creative thought is instead replaced by things like moral outrage or “doomscrolling.”

Irving on Tuesday received a $75,000 fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Dangers and Opportunities of Technology section to research a book that, he hopes, will offer a path toward mitigating the toxicity.

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He’s also teaching a graduate seminar this fall on the topic.

He spoke to UVA Today about the problem of digital distraction. He said he thinks the solution lies in tapping human spontaneity, a state of mind that’s integral to creativity and the brain’s on-off switch.

Why We Get Stuck in a Loop

Irving’s project is titled “The Spontaneity Deficit: Good Minds in the Age of Distraction.” He views tech as useful, but often antithetical to a meandering mental state, which he says the brain needs for healthy balance.

“Notifications, emails, Twitter posts, YouTube recommendations, Google Ads, texts, Slack messages, Venmo requests – such technologies are designed to place historically unprecedented demands on attention,” Irving said.

Social media environments in particular – and the algorithms that drive them – are designed to maximize user engagement. Irving argues that the algorithms accomplish this by fostering a kind of “sticky” attention that his previous work links to anxiety and other mental health disorders.

“Right now companies have ‘your brain on drugs’ versions of social media,” Irving said. “And nobody wants that when the drug just gives you an anxiety disorder. Like, that’s a bad drug.”

Irving said he dates the strong “eyes on app” mentality back to 2016 with YouTube’s and then Facebook’s algorithmic tweaks, both of which sought to increase screen time based on individual online activity.

The new customized recommendations doubled the amount of time adults spent on YouTube, compared to 2015, for example. They also resulted in headlines such this one from The New York Times: “Facebook Has 50 Minutes of Your Time Each Day. It Wants More.”

The apps were doing a better job of getting inside our heads, but that came with a cost.

“There are studies that show rates of moral outrage are much higher and that digital distractions can induce smartphone-related anxiety,” Irving said.

Why More Spontaneity May Help

Irving is the author of a theory on creativity called “the shower effect.” It states that we sometimes get our most creative thoughts while performing tasks that require fewer mental demands, such as showering or going for a walk.

Spontaneity in particular reflects both state of mind and its byproducts. Think jazz music or improvisational comedy. When a task doesn’t require a linear solution, or when there’s no task at all, the mind likes to riff, he said.

Portrait of Zachary Irving
UVA philosopher Zachary Irving has been named a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow and will write a book that’s meant to be prescriptive for solving the digital distraction problem. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“There’s evidence in the literature that our wandering thoughts are often about sort of standing goals that we have,” he said. “But mind-wandering also makes you more likely to think about something that seems irrelevant to your problem, like some weird idea that you otherwise would ignore, that just pops into your head. That’s one of the processes that supports creativity.”

His latest theory is that being engrossed in social media creates a “spontaneity deficit.” That’s because sticky thought is incompatible with spontaneity: when your mind wanders from one topic to another, you can’t be stuck on a single thing.

“Spontaneity is associated with positive affect,” he said. “On the whole, people tend to be slightly less happy when they’re distracted, rather than when they’re on task. But the opposite happens when you look at spontaneity. When you’re distracted and your thoughts are freely moving and they’re spontaneous, you have positive mood and you’re energized. And being happy is something that people want.”

Irving’s book will review the current body of related research, including his own, then make suggestions for a revised business model for social media companies and other digital providers.

The project dovetails with a UVA Grand Challenge to match digital technology with improved youth mental health. The Grand Challenges Research Investments support UVA’s 2030 Plan, which aims to match areas of academic expertise with real-world problems in the commonwealth and beyond.

The stakes are high, Irving said. Without spontaneity, you might not be able to pivot when a major life problem comes your way.

“There are reasons that your brain evolved to have time to spend in spontaneous thought, and it’s because it counteracts this problem of getting stuck in a loop,” he said. “If you reduce spontaneity, you risk having an overly calcified perspective.”

He thinks that knowledge can even be marketable.

“If a company could make you feel more like, ‘Hey, this is my normal brain; this is what I feel like after I go for a walk,’ then that social media company might do very well,” he said. “People want to be happy and spontaneous and exploratory. If you give them a way to do that, while they’re still getting the enjoyment of using social media, they will thank you.”

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications