People spend nearly an hour on Facebook every day. Maybe that doesn’t automatically sound impressive. But when you parse the numbers, the significance becomes clear: as James B. Stewart wrote for the New York Times, “That’s more than any other leisure activity surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the exception of watching television programs and movies (an average per day of 2.8 hours). It’s more time than people spend reading (19 minutes); participating in sports or exercise (17 minutes); or social events (four minutes). It’s almost as much time as people spend eating and drinking (1.07 hours).”
Many of us feel guilty after we realize the amount of time we’ve spent on social media—perusing our Facebook or Instagram feeds, checking Twitter or Snapchat. We resolve to spend less time online. We swear that tomorrow we’ll read a book instead, or maybe call an old friend. But all too often, when tomorrow arrives, we’re exhausted and burned out. We don’t have the energy to engage in reading or talking. We just turn on Netflix or scroll through more apps. Why is this?
Multitasking Burns Our Brains
One theory is that “multitasking” burns our brains because it’s so difficult to do and requires so much mental energy. After a day spent multitasking, our brains just fizzle out and have to “veg” because of the effort required. As Verena von Pfetten recently wrote for the New York Times,
As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. ‘That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.’
… A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Ms. Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. ‘I just stuff my brain full of them because I can’t manage to do anything else,’ she said.
We weren’t made to do multiple tasks at once. When we scroll mindlessly through Facebook or binge-watch Netflix, it’s because we’ve worn out our brains.
There’s nothing wrong with sending pictures to a friend on Snapchat or catching up with someone via Facebook messaging. But oftentimes this isn’t what we’re doing for the majority of the time we’re online: most of the time spent on social media is passive, a scrolling and “liking” that requires minimal engagement.
When we do this, we’re entering what author Sherry Turkle calls “the Facebook zone” in her book “Reclaiming Conversation.” This zone is a softer version of the state gamblers describe when they frequent slot machines, she writes. It’s a sort of mental reverie, a hypnotic rhythm of scrolling, clicking, liking—all without being fully cognizant or aware of the passing of time. “When you’re on social media, you don’t leave, but you are not sure if you are making a conscious decision to stay,” she writes.
Things like communicating meaningfully and deeply with your mom or dad, going out to coffee with an old friend, etc., are “monotasking” activities. They’re better for us: we learn and remember more, feel more rested and emotionally nourished afterwards. But they require a depth of thought and concentration that, after a day of multitasking, many of us don’t feel up to. So we put these things off, and turn to social media or Netflix instead.
The Opportunity Costs of Social Media Overuse
Social media can also become an alternative to solitude and boredom: Instagram and Facebook fill empty holes of time we might otherwise spend doing other things. “Maggie and Judy [two young women Turkle interviews] say that cycling through apps takes them away from other—and they think more important—things they used to do, like going for a walk, drawing, and reading,” Turkle writes. “They no longer make time for these activities, but they can’t break away from their phones and are not sure they want to.”
Solitary time is now time spent online in what Turkle calls “daydreaming 2.0.” It’s our “insurance policy” against boredom or “disconnection anxiety.” Do you ever reach for your phone when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic or a line at the supermarket? This is your daydreaming 2.0. Rather than letting your brain wander, you reach for the distraction of an app.
Turkle suggests that when we reach for our phones, “Perhaps we are not moving toward our phones but away from something else. Are we hiding from anxiety? Are we hiding from a good idea that will demand difficult work? Are we hiding from a question that will take time to sort through?”
It’s difficult to be alone. Often, the thoughts that come unbidden are the very ones we would rather ignore—thoughts about mortality, pain, fear, loneliness, or vulnerability. As Louis CK once put it, “I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they’re killing, everybody’s murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”
Perhaps social media is both the nice, lulling monotony you can turn to when your brain’s exhausted, and the exciting, promising hum you embrace when life feels a little too empty or quiet. In both cases, it’s saving us a harder sort of connection or contemplation we often feel we don’t have the energy to pursue.
Is This Really What I Want to Be Doing?
Since I’m guilty of this myself, I don’t know what the answer is, exactly. Should I delete most of the social media apps on my phone so I’m not tempted to be constantly surfing? Should I download other apps that bar me from perusing social media until I’ve had a long talk with my sister? Writer Tony Schwartz suggested a different way last year:
When I’m online, I try to resist surfing myself into a stupor. As often as possible, I try to ask myself, ‘Is this really what I want to be doing?’ If the answer is no, the next question is, ‘What could I be doing that would feel more productive, or satisfying, or relaxing?’
I also make it my business now to take on more fully absorbing activities as part of my days. Above all, I’ve kept up reading books, not just because I love them, but also as a continuing attention-building practice… If I have other work during the day that requires sustained focus, I go completely offline for designated periods, repeating my morning ritual. In the evening, when I go up to my bedroom, I nearly always leave my digital devices downstairs.
Schwartz addresses the importance here of monotasking: if we don’t wear out our brains earlier in the day by trying to do too much at once, we won’t be as burned out at the end of the day, and will have the mental energy to do more meaningful activities.
(Of course, this is a perplexing dilemma for parents—isn’t the parenting life a constant juggling of multiple tasks? For them, von Pfetten suggests “monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before they go to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends.” Not only do these things help refresh your brain—they are all opportunities for meaningful connection outside the world of the Internet.)
Often we just need to be cognizant of what’s happening when we log into Facebook or other social media: aware, and ready to ask ourselves the same question Schwartz poses to himself: “Is this really what I want to be doing?” Although we often have a temporal urge to say “Yes,” we may later regret the time wasted on social media—time that could have been spent pursuing other, deeper forms of communication and connection.
Time to go make a 50-minute phone call.