The Digital Attention Crisis
Many of us feel that everyday life is no longer under our control. We are being overloaded by continuous variety. The more activities we choose to engage in, the less time and energy we have for each of them. Global shipments of smartphones has risen 8.5- fold in the last decade leading to an unparalleled connectivity, however 72% of employees report that they struggle to find the information they need. Furthermore 57% suggest their organisation’s response to managing information is poor.
There is a growing disturbance between our inner-world and our environment. This may go some way to explaining why an abundance of information and choice has not necessarily been accompanied by a growing sense of wellbeing.
Our brains are not predisposed to meet the demands of the highly specialised tasks and efforts required by modern digital society. We attempt to cope by ‘multi-tasking’, but this approach can cannibalise up to 40% of productive time.
We make more mistakes, learn less and tasks take longer to complete.
Combining two effortful tasks is harder than completing them separately. Switching tasks increases cognitive load. Most of what we call multi-tasking is actually the prefrontal cortex – a region toward the front of our brain - acting as a policeman directing traffic at a busy intersection, switching between the various neural networks required for the processes associated with each task.
Our smartphones buzz with notifications throughout the day and night; we accept relentless distraction as the default option. Habitual checking on missed calls and messages can become an addictive pattern of behaviour, increasing stress and disturbing sleep. When we take the opportunity to rest, 34% of us admit to using social media as a form of mental break. However, while it may activate our reward mechanisms, these diversions do not restore us. They are another form of ‘pseudo work’ for our brains as we switch and process content.
“Even if our devices are switched off, cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when our smartphone is within reach”.
The Details Of The Problem
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google have produced amazing products that have benefited the world enormously. But these companies are also caught in a zero-sum race for our finite attention, which they need to make money. Constantly forced to outperform their competitors, they must use increasingly persuasive techniques to keep us glued. They point AI-driven news feeds, content, and notifications at our minds, continually learning how to hook us more deeply—from our own behaviour.
Unfortunately, what's best for capturing our attention isn't best for our well-being:
• Snapchat turns conversations into streaks, redefining how our children measure friendship.
• Instagram glorifies the picture-perfect life, eroding our self worth.
• Facebook segregates us into echo chambers, fragmenting our communities.
• YouTube autoplays the next video within seconds, even if it eats into our sleep.
These are not neutral products. They are part of a system designed to addict us.
Phones, apps, and the web are so indispensable to our daily lives—a testament to the benefits they give us—that we’ve become a captive audience. With two billion people plugged into these devices, technology companies have inadvertently enabled a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision.
Here's the TED Talk by Tristan Harris:
The Way Forward
Humane Design has been set up by world-class tech experts at Centre For Humane Technology.
It works by understanding our most vulnerable human instincts so we can design compassionately to protect them from being abused:
• How are we vulnerable to getting overwhelmed, stressed or outraged?
• How are we vulnerable to micro-targeted persuasion? (e.g. messages that use our personality and traits against us?)
• How are we vulnerable to the expectation of being available 24/7 to each other?
HumaneTech are creating humane design standards, policy, and business models that more deeply align with our humanity and how we want to live.
Steps You Can Take Now
1) Turn off all notifications - Notifications appear in RED dots because red is a trigger colour that instantly draws our attention. But most notifications are generated by machines, not actual people. They keep our phones vibrating to lure us back into apps we don't really need to be in.
How: Visit Settings > Notifications and turn off all notifications, banners, and badges, except from apps where real people want your attention; e.g. messaging apps like WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Signal, Telegram, WeChat etc.
2) Go Grayscale - Colourful icons give our brains shiny rewards every time we unlock. Set your phone to grayscale to remove those positive reinforcements. It helps many people check their phone less.
How: Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut (bottom) > Colour Filters. This allows you to quickly triple-tap the home button to toggle grayscale on and off, so you keep colour when you need it.
3) Keeping your home screen to tools only - Do you open apps mindlessly because they are the first thing you see when you unlock your phone?
How: Limit your first page of apps to just tools–the apps you use for quick in-and-out tasks like Maps, Camera, Calendar, Notes, or Lyft. Move the rest of your apps, especially mindless choices, off the first page and into folders.
4) Charge your device outside the bedroom - Get a separate alarm clock in your bedroom, and charge your phone in another room (or on the other side of the room). This way, you can wake up without getting sucked into your phone before you even get out of bed.
5) Go cold turkey: Remove social media from your phone - This one is tough, but effective! If you really want to use your phone less, we recommend removing all the major social media apps from your phone. It’s the easiest way to cut back, as these apps can easily gobble up so much of our time. Train yourself to use them from your computer only (if at all).
How: You can delete the Facebook app and still get some specific features, i.e. Facebook Messenger for messages, and "Local" for events.
We'd love to hear from you
How does social media effect you?
Do the continual distractions of social media disrupt your work?
Do you have a friend or loved one addicted to social media?
What do you do to control any negative effects social media has on your wellbeing?