Table of Contents

Social media addiction & tips to regain your attention

*Based on Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again 🙂

As a daydreamer with lofty aspirations, I spend a lot of time making what I call “software upgrades” to my brain by learning skills and implementing routines that I believe will get me to self-actualization. The thing is, I’ve learned that this journey is as much about implementing routines as it is about ruling out chaos, and in this day and age, we’re infested by the latter. What can I do about this? How can I rule out the chaos in my life?

To find an answer to this question, I first had to narrow down the chaos. Thankfully, this was easy to do, as I’ve had the same vicious patterns inflicting me since I joined Facebook at age 10 — social media addiction, and more broadly, screen addiction.

Unfortunately, I know that many people on the internet feel the way I do, bogged down and alarmingly distracted by the few inches of technology in our pockets. I feel its effects in my daily life. For instance, during lulls in conversation, I fill the gap with screen time; when I get stuck doing difficult work, I reach for my phone for a cheap distraction; and instead of making intimate connections with people, I give hearts on Instagram.

Since 8th grade, when I got my first smartphone, I’ve watched my screen addiction grow into an uncontrollable monster. A decade later, my attention span is significantly reduced because of social media use. Let’s take this little essay as an example. As I write this, I find it strenuous to sit and write uninterruptedly for long periods without screen interruption. I’ve even deleted all social media apps from my phone and time-blocked them so I could minimize distractions. The scariest part is that, by the time I inevitably give into the urge to check social media, (which I mischievously access through Safari) my hand has already unlocked my phone and opened the app without my notice. Terrifying.

Simply put, I’ve reduced my life to what happens on my phone and I’ve had enough. I’m ready to not let it define me anymore.

In my quest to rule out this particular chaos that, frankly, has ruled so many of my days, I read Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari, which highlights the issues I’m facing as a screen addict and how I can mediate them.

Here’s what I’ve learned and how I’m regaining my attention. I will be sharing some tips at the end so stay tuned!

How Social Media Works

15 years ago, when I first joined Facebook, I would spend my summers playing mini-games and chatting with my friends, and all I cared about was the FREE price tag. All I had to do was to come up with a fun username, make up a difficult password, and create a junk email to send spam to. In fact, it’s so easy, a 10-year-old can do it (I was that 10-year-old!). I could access all this information, games, music, and people without costing me a dime, which was quite the prize for someone who wouldn’t have her first job for another 6 years. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about social media and how it works. Turns out social media isn’t as free as I once thought. At first, this might sound confusing because none of the major social media platforms actually cost money. Yet, after sitting down and really thinking about this business model — how do these companies turn a profit? What exactly is the “product” they sell to users? What do they get from me using their apps? –  I’ve come to a simple conclusion:

As social media users, we perceive ourselves as customers when, realistically, we are the product. Our data, privacy, and attention are the real price we pay to browse online.

Simply put, the goal of social media platforms is to:

  • Engage as many people as possible for as long as possible
  • Gather user data about who they are and what they’re like
  • Use that data to sell targeted products back to users

How do they do this? Algorithms.

If you are part of the online social sphere, the term “algorithm” will most likely be familiar to you. In its simplest form, algorithms are used to describe the rules that govern an online platform. They tell users when to get “liked” notifications, decide what information to gather, and influence your feed based on that data. In a way, algorithms are the veins of online platforms, dictating where the content circulates and how it affects the user experience. For this reason, algorithms can be very dangerous because they’re programmed to manipulate our attention and to rewire how we perceive likes and comments online — a case of classical conditioning. For example, when you post on Instagram and somebody likes your post, you get a notification (a brain signal) that makes you feel good about yourself (dopamine is released). Therefore, your body releases dopamine in exchange for your time on these platforms.

In this sense, social media platforms work like gambling machines because both introduce rewards at unpredictable intervals so consumers become dependent on the rewards. For instance, instead of getting all Instagram notifications in one fell swoop, your notifications are programmed to be spread out throughout the day so users are tempted to keep checking back on their posts. This means that you get more dopamine hits throughout the day, keeping you addicted to the notifications, and therefore addicted to social media. This is very much like gambling machines that systematically give you “near misses” that make you feel you are close to a reward that will inevitably come at some unpredictable time if you just keep playing.

The main difference is that algorithms are much more powerful than gambling machines because they collect data on everything you post or like, make up a picture of who you are, and then cater content to fit whatever emotion they want you to feel. Do you tend to use optimistic words? Do you tend to express negative emotions online? How do you manage conflict? Algorithms learn this about you by reading your data and then the platforms sell that data for ad revenue. In fact, gathering and selling data that describes how users interact is how social media platforms profit. This is why you’ve probably noticed the influx of ads and other targeted marketing that is sometimes frighteningly relevant to you and your interests, which perfectly encapsulates the power of algorithms to know you better than you know yourself.

However, being a guinea pig for big media isn’t the only price to pay. Most of us might not even think that selling our data is a problem at all, just something that can’t be changed — just something that is. You have nothing to hide, right? Yet, our attention spans are suffering greatly at the hands of the purposely addictive nature of social media, amongst other very harmful side effects of social media use. I’m sure you’ve experienced these mechanisms at work and, if you’ve been a user for a long time, this will be incredibly obvious if we observe how they’ve changed over time. For instance, I can recall when Instagram presented posts in the order of publication, with the oldest post at the end of the feed and the newest at the top. At the end of the feed, you’d get a message telling you “You’re all caught up” and you’d then have the choice to find more entertainment or walk away. However, things have changed. Now, your feed is an endless scroll that generates more and more content the farther down you, giving users no psychological stopping point and encouraging more scrolling. This simple algorithm change keeps more people psychologically glued to their screens and longing for more. It also gives these platforms more opportunities to gather your data and sell it back through advertisements.

But how, exactly, is all of this affecting our attention?

Attention is our ability to focus on one thing at a time without distraction. It promotes complexity, depth of thought, and curiosity by forcing us to narrow our analysis down to 1 thing we’re trying to understand or create. Now, think about how you use social media in your daily life. There’s a strong dichotomy between fostered attention and the fragmented attention we build by using social media (and by the mere fact of having the world in our pockets). For example, I find that when I’m on my phone, my attention is often split between different social media platforms, cycling between apps, and constantly scrolling from one piece of content to the next surfing for quick entertainment. In fact, most social platforms are specifically designed for users to move quickly from one piece of content to the next to maximize screen time and profits quickly. This model of “split attention = profit” can only mean that you aren’t taking the time to do deep thinking about the content you’re consuming throughout the day and that your attention is fragmented between glimpses of Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Reddit, and a plethora of other distracting rabbit holes.

This kind of fragmented engagement with social media shapes the message on these media platforms. In other words, the medium through which the content is shared becomes part of the message. For example, think about how social media platforms frame the message of social media posts:

1) Social media platforms thrive when users spend as much time as possible scrolling through their feeds. Therefore, algorithms are programed to dispense as much content as possible, at the expense of quality. This can only mean that the content you consume is shallow, click-baity, and emotionally triggering in order to steal as much of your attention as possible.

2) When users share “hot” opinions and explosive comments on social media, people tend to engage with those posts more often. Users even get rewarded for their quick responses through likes and comments. This can only mean that the social media medium encourages rash conversation (usually without sufficient contextualization) which increases engagement and profit for these platforms.

3) Social media algorithms tend to prioritize the circulation of explosive news for increased engagement. Unfortunately, this kind of content is usually misinformed or oversimplified for the sake of catching people’s attention. Therefore, the content shared in these platforms requires less attention from both the reader and the writer than any fully outlined opinion or argument. This can only mean that the message we share as a whole is as shallow as its medium.

Overall, this means that the “message” users want to convey on these platforms is shaped by the underlying principles of social media – the “message,” as much as the “medium,” is shaped to steal your attention.

Dangers of fragmented attention

When we give up our attention in exchange for screen time, we compromise some of the most basic human attributes at a personal level:


Studies show that feelings of compassion are nurtured over a long period of time. However, social media and other short-form platforms don’t allow for the deep and complex interactions necessary to breed compassion. Unfortunately, the content we interact with is getting shorter and shorter and we’re collectively losing our ability for compassion.


Social media platforms applaud users for quick replies and incentivize them to have to-the-point conversations that don’t leave room for ambiguity or well-rounded context. It just gives you a surface-level, narrow conversation that doesn’t let you see people as people. It serves to make you see people as the thoughts and opinions they have, no matter what information or stories helped them shape those thoughts (which is far more important).

Deep work and flow.

When our attention is split between different mediums (like most of our collective attention is), over time we lose our ability to concentrate and think deeply. This means it’s more difficult for us to enter what is called the “flow” state in which we hyper-focus on an idea, thought, or activity for a prolonged and uninterrupted period of time. Instead, our process of creation and thought is muddled by the constant need to seek out quick entertainment.

Breakthroughs and deep thinking can only happen in a state of focus, and as we fragment our attention, our work becomes shallower. Consequentially, our fragmented attention also compromises society as a whole:


Research shows that as our attention becomes more fragmented, we tend to believe in simpler and mainstream ideas instead of digging deeper. For instance, communist and socialist ideologies tend to be more popular among people with fragmented attention spans (ex. younger generations who are growing up with social media). Thus, democracy is in danger at the hands of weakened attention because we don’t only think as individuals; we think as a group. And, as we’re collectively losing our ability to think deeply, this will proliferate through every aspect of society – including democracy.

Addiction is not your fault — it’s the intended result of social media use.

To some extent, each of us is responsible for our habits and how they affect our lifestyles; each of us is responsible for our “chaos” if we want to meaningfully shape our lives. However, there is a limit to our personal responsibility when it comes to social media addiction — what Hari calls cruel optimism. According to Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari, cruel optimism is the misleading idea that people’s individual choices can override the systems that keep them unfocused and addicted. For instance, he makes an example of someone who wears a mask to prevent air pollution from affecting them. On one hand, the mask seeks to solve the pollution problem from an individual perspective, which might be helpful to some degree. On the other hand, the mask doesn’t solve the issue of pollution whatsoever; it merely puts a band-aid on it.

Hari claims that this kind of “gaslighting” is happening to social media users who are struggling to regain their attention. On one hand, there are things you can do to fix your attention like turning off social media notifications or setting time limits on those apps. This will help you get some aspects of your attention back. However, it doesn’t solve the systemic problem of social media platforms exploiting your attention.

In fact, social media platforms use cruel optimism to keep their addictive algorithms in place. They claim that social media users can simply not use the platforms and disengage on their own. However, this doesn’t change the environment and the algorithms that are built to keep you hooked to the screen.

What you can do to take your time back. Thanks, Hari!

Recognize it’s an addiction and treat it as such.

If you can relate to any of the aforementioned and feel as though your attention and time are being robbed by these platforms, it’s safe to say you are addicted to social media. Limit your contact with it as much as possible. Delete the apps, lock them behind passwords, and don’t go on your phone before you go to bed or when you wake up. This will be difficult, and you will probably relapse, but it’s a start. What hobbies have you been wanting to try? What happened to that book you’ve been meaning to write? Making a conscious effort to stay away from social media will give you time to engage with other activities that you value.

Train your triggers.

This is one of the most effective tricks that I learned while reading Hari’s book. If you’re working on a project that you need deep concentration on, and feel compelled to check your phone for whatever reason, don’t give in to that urge. Instead, write down what it is you want to look up, then, let 10 minutes go by and see how you feel. Did you really need to check your phone 10 minutes ago or is it your addiction talking? Keep doing this every time you feel like checking your phone. You will notice how often and compelling these urges are and how much they drive the way you use social media. It all comes down to rebuilding focus, which can only be achieved through disciplined and conscious efforts. You can even train your triggers through microjournaling.

Get more sleep.

Because our attention is becoming more fragmented, our sleep is doing so too. Thus, we rely on energy drinks to make up the difference even though our brain remains tired and unrested at the end of the day. Prioritize getting more sleep. It will clear your brain of toxins and you will feel more awake and focused the next day.

Allow yourself to daydream — allow yourself to be bored.

Studies show that people who are bored right before attempting puzzles and challenges are more likely to come up with creative and effective solutions. They’re also more likely to engage with these activities for longer periods of time, therefore, fostering focus. Let go of the idea that you must be engaged with something at all times — this is addiction speaking. Take the time to get to know your thoughts and explore them. Make time to be bored.

Problem-solve for fun.

Social media platforms teach us to be extrinsically motivated. This means that our behaviors are driven by the likes, comments, interactions, and notifications we get on these platforms. On the other hand, spending time with ourselves teaches us to be intrinsically motivated. This means that we get pleasure from pursuing answers to interesting questions regardless of a “reward”. It teaches us to enjoy the process, to be curious, and to spend time looking at things from different perspectives for the sake of the experience.

Change screens for (paper) scrolls —Read more!

Our brain captures and remembers more information when it learns off-screen. For instance, someone reading an ebook on their phone will recall less about the book than someone reading a physical copy. This is what Hari calls screen discrimination. Go to your local library and check out books on topics you want to learn about. Replace the comment section with a blank notebook page. Go wild.

This is just the start.

Social media addiction is a real thing and because the drug is in our pockets at all times, it’s hard to get away from it. So, if we want to make meaningful changes we have to be diligent, open, and forgiving of ourselves because this will not be an easy journey. Getting over any addiction is a constant and daily battle, so don’t give up! The last thing we lose is hope, and if you combine that with a little bit of discipline I think you will do just fine 🙂

If you want to learn more about this topic, I’d highly recommend reading Hari’s book! It gave me the tools and motivation to take my addiction more seriously, and it has actually worked for me. It is possible to see yourself on the other side.

I wish you luck.

See you next time! It’s great to be here.

Got a book recommendation? I'd love to hear it!