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Controlling our attention in the digital age

Category: Research

How do social networks influence our attention?

This question is at the heart of a great deal of recent research. For some years now, experts in economics and sociology have been exploring what is known as the “attention economy”. This business model, adopted by digital platforms such as Google, Facebook/Meta and YouTube, aims to capture our attention and keep us engaged for as long as possible. The aim is to maximise advertising revenues, with implications that extend beyond social networks (such as Instagram or Tik Tok) to online video games.

Discussions with Mehdi Khamassi, CNRS research director in cognitive sciences at ISIR.

Attention, often compared by experts to the new oil, has become a precious resource controlled by a small number of players. The mechanisms used to capture this attention are largely inspired by psychology. For example, rewards given with a certain variability, such as likes on social networks or bonuses in video games, are known in psychology to involve a high degree of unpredictability and to maximise the capture of our attention. What’s more, endless information feeds and auto-play functions encourage repetitive behaviour, making it difficult to switch off voluntarily. Pop-ups and other prominent visual elements solicit our exogenous attention (controlled from outside), often to the detriment of our endogenous attention (controlled by our will).

Societal impacts and challenges of the attention economy

The societal impacts of this attention-grabbing are manifold. The considerable amount of time we spend on these platforms is giving rise to growing concern. Although addiction has only been scientifically established for substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.), gambling and video games, cognitive science is seeking to clarify the potentially addictive mechanisms of social networks.

The consequences for attention training are also a cause for concern. Allowing ourselves to be automatically guided by screens reduces the time devoted to training our endogenous attention for other activities, whether manual, sporting or intellectual. “To my knowledge, it has not yet been clearly established scientifically that there may be a causal effect between the time spent on social networking sites and the concentration difficulties and attention problems that are increasingly being diagnosed in children. But it’s something to keep an eye on,” says Mehdi Khamassi.

Children are particularly vulnerable, as their brains continue to develop until the age of 20-25, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is essential for long-term planning. This brain immaturity makes them less able to curb immediate desires in favour of long-term benefits, such as health or vision. What’s more, children have more difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction and recognising the commercial intentions behind content. Adolescents, for their part, are particularly sensitive to the need for social recognition, which makes them more vulnerable to negative interactions on social networks.

The impact on sleep when screens are used late is also worth highlighting. They can have harmful effects on children’s cognitive development and education. However, there are some positive effects, such as the development of visual-spatial attention skills thanks to certain video games, but these must be managed in moderation.From a wider societal perspective, these practices raise issues of material and energy over-consumption (incentives to buy and use of rare metals for manufacturing), as well as democratic issues (problem of opacity between true and false, opinions and scientifically established knowledge). What’s more, the polarisation of opinions, exacerbated by attention-grabbing techniques and recommendation algorithms, makes constructive dialogue more difficult and amplifies social tensions.

Strengthening digital education to better manage attention

“As well as feeling concerned by these various societal problems, my entry point into the specific problem of attention capture came from my involvement over the last ten years or so in the issue of the invasion of advertising”, explains Mehdi Khamassi. His research into the automation of decisions in familiar and repetitive contexts, and into Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning, has given him a better understanding of some of the mechanisms used in advertising. In the case of the economy of attention on digital platforms, there is also the question of targeted advertising. As well as capturing our attention, our data, our tracks and our behaviour are also captured more easily than in the real world. With the use of classification algorithms and recent advances in AI, this enables targeted advertising that is more effective because it is more personalised.

In collaboration with experts such as Célia Zolynski, professor of digital law, Florian Forestier, philosopher, and Stefana Broadbent, anthropologist and design specialist, Mehdi Khamassi worked on the TESaCo project (Technologies Emergentes et Sagesse Collective, led by the philosopher Daniel Andler at the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences) to explore the issue of freedom of choice in the context of the attention economy. They identified the design elements of digital interfaces that automatically capture our attention and proposed legislative measures to regulate these practices.

The conclusions of this research emphasise that responsibility does not lie solely with individuals. As well as reinforcing digital education and attention control from an early age, the law needs to provide a framework for practices (by banning manipulative interfaces, for example), and the State needs to have a genuine cultural policy to encourage the development of alternative interfaces, such as collaborative interfaces (e.g. Wikipedia). It is also recommended by experts in developmental psychology and educational science that we define precise screen usage times for ourselves and our children, and that we disable automatic notifications as far as possible to reduce interruptions. “Interruptions are known to have a cognitive cost in terms of refocusing on the task we were doing before being interrupted. The result is poorer comprehension and memory of what you were reading, for example,” explains Mehdi Khamassi.

Social networks and the capture of attention

The book “Pour une nouvelle culture de l’attention : Que faire de ces réseaux sociaux qui nous épuisent ?”, co-authored by Mehdi Khamassi, offers an introduction to the psychological mechanisms linked to our attention, scientific knowledge on attention fatigue and how to restore it more effectively, and a historical overview of the capture of attention for marketing and advertising purposes. It also offers a philosophical reflection to help us take a step back from these societal upheavals, and the feelings of powerlessness, acceleration and unease that we may feel. The question of freedom is also addressed, and suggestions are made for sorting out our automatisms and keeping only those that suit us.

“Ask yourself if you are satisfied with the time you spend on it. If not, set yourself a specific amount of time per day to spend on it. Stick to them. Deactivate as many pop-ups, notifications and adverts as possible. Reject as many cookies as possible to reduce targeted advertising. Try to diversify your sources of information and content. Get into the habit of checking sources and their reliability before re-sharing”, advises Mehdi Khamassi.

Scientific contact at ISIR: Mehdi Khamassi, CNRS Research Director

Published on 27 June 2024.