Rethinking Time Spent on Social Media: Exploring Dissociation

People sometimes experience daydreaming or become engrossed in reading a page of a book and then realize that their mind was somewhere else, occupied in an unrelated train of thought. In a similar way, many have become completely absorbed in a movie or computer game, resulting in losing track of external stimuli.  These experiences are described as normative dissociation.

Researchers at the University of Washington wondered if people enter a similar state of dissociation when surfing social media, and if that explains why users might feel out of control after spending so much time on their favorite app. (There are multiple types of dissociation including trauma-based dissociation and the everyday dissociation associated with spacing out or focusing intently on a task)

A study presented at the recent CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems entitled “I Don’t Even Remember What I Read”: How Design Influences Dissociation on Social Media observed how participants interacted with a Twitter-like platform to show that some people are spacing out while they’re scrolling. Researchers also designed intervention strategies that social media platforms could use to help people retain more control over their online experiences. 

The research team designed and built an app called Chirp, which was connected to participants’ Twitter accounts. Through Chirp, users’ likes and tweets appear on the real social media platform, but researchers can control people’s experience, adding new features or quick pop-up notices or surveys. 

Researchers asked 43 Twitter users from across the U.S. to use Chirp for a month. For each session, after three minutes users would see a dialog box asking them to rate on a scale from one to five how much they agreed with this statement: “I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I am doing.” The dialog box continued to pop up every 15 minutes. 

“We used their rating as a way to measure dissociation,” lead author Baughan said. “It captured the experience of being really absorbed and not paying attention to what’s around you, or of scrolling on your phone without paying attention to what you’re doing.”

Over the course of the month, 42% of participants (18 people) agreed or strongly agreed with that statement at least once. After the month, the researchers did in-depth interviews with 11 participants. Seven described experiencing dissociation while using Chirp. 

In addition to receiving the dissociation survey while using Chirp, users experienced different intervention strategies. The researchers divided the strategies into two categories: changes within the app’s design (internal interventions) and broader changes that mimicked the lockout mechanisms and timers that are available to users now (external interventions). Over the course of the month, participants spent one week with no interventions, one week with only internal interventions, one week with only external interventions and one week with both.  

When internal interventions were activated, participants got a “you’re all caught up!” message when they had seen all new tweets. People also had to organize the accounts they followed into lists. 

For external interventions, participants had access to a page that displayed their activity on Chirp for the current session. A dialog box also popped up every 20 minutes asking users if they wanted to continue using Chirp. 

In general, participants liked the changes to the app’s design. The “you’re all caught up!” message together with the lists allowed people to focus on what they cared about. 

The problem with social media platforms, the researchers said, is not that people lack the self-control needed to not get sucked in, but instead that the platforms themselves are not designed to maximize what people value.

“Taking these so-called mindless breaks can be really restorative,” Baughan said. “But social media platforms are designed to keep people scrolling. When we are in a dissociative state, we have a diminished sense of agency, which makes us more vulnerable to those designs and we lose track of time. These platforms need to create an end-of-use experience, so that people can have it fit in their day with their time-management goals.”

Study:
Baugnan A, Zhang MR, Rao R, et al. “I Don’t Even Remember What I Read”: How Design Influences Dissociation on Social Media. CHI ’22: CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. April 2022 Article No.: 18, Pages 1–13 https://doi.org/10.1145/3491102.3501899

[Link to slides with audio of presentation at CHI Conference 5/22]