Social media can put users in ‘dissociative state,’ study says

The problem with social media isn’t that people lack self-control, but that the platforms aren’t designed to maximize the things they value.

Dave Yasvinski 5 minute read May 24, 2022
Couple using smartphones on a date.The concept of phone addiction. Face absorbed by the phone.

There are many different types of dissociation, some that happen multiple times throughout the day when intense focus leads to a wandering mind. GETTY

A new small-scale study has found that some people get so absorbed by social media that they enter a dissociative state that makes it easy to lose track of time.

The research, which was presented at the CHI 2022 conference in New Orleans, was inspired by stories of everyday disassociation that researchers commonly heard from people who were getting lost in their phones during the early days of the pandemic. They wanted to gain a better understanding of how people were interacting with social media and see if they could use intervention strategies to minimize the likelihood of users spacing out or feeling a loss of control while scrolling.

“I think people experience a lot of shame around social media use,” said Amanda Baughan, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. “One of the things I like about this framing of ‘dissociation’ rather than ‘addiction’ is that it changes the narrative. Instead of: ‘I should be able to have more self-control,’ it’s more like: ‘We all naturally dissociate in many ways throughout our day — whether it’s daydreaming or scrolling through Instagram, we stop paying attention to what’s happening around us.’”

While the mental process of disconnecting from one’s thoughts is commonly associated with traumatic encounters, there are many different types of dissociation, some that happen multiple times throughout the day when intense focus leads to a wandering mind.

“Dissociation is defined by being completely absorbed in whatever it is you’re doing,” Baughan said. “But people only realize that they’ve dissociated in hindsight. So, once you exit dissociation there’s sometimes this feeling of: How did I get here? It’s like when people on social media realize: ‘Oh my gosh, how did 30 minutes go by? I just meant to check one notification.’”

To explore the issue, researchers recruited 43 Twitter users from across the U.S. and asked them to use an app they developed called Chirp. The app, which connected to the Twitter accounts of participants and allowed them to tweet and scroll normally, also let researchers implement features that controlled the user experience.

“One of the questions we had was: What happens if we rebuild a social media platform so that it continues to offer what people like about it but it is designed with an explicit goal of keeping the user in control of their time and attention?” said Alexis Hiniker, senior author of the study and an assistant professor in the UW Information School. “How does a user’s experience with this redesigned app compare to their experience with the status quo in digital well-being design, that is, adding an outside lockout mechanism or timer to police their usage?”

Every session, Chirp users were presented with a dialog box after three minutes that asked them, on a scale of one to five, how strongly they agreed with the following statement: “I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I am doing.” This dialog appeared every 15 minutes following the first encounter.

“We used their rating as a way to measure dissociation,” 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.”

By the end of the month, 42 per cent of Chirp users had agreed or strongly agreed with the statement at least once. Seven of 11 users who were interviewed extensively after the study described the experience of dissociation when talking about using the app.

The team also experimented with several intervention strategies, which they described as internal (related to app design) and external (measures currently available in many apps, such as timers that lock users out after a certain amount of use). Participants spent one week with no interventions, one week with each and a final week with both at the same time.

For the internal interventions, users organized accounts they followed into lists and were given a ‘You’re all caught up’ message when they saw the latest content. For external, they had access to a chart that displayed their use and received a pop-up message every 20 minutes asking them if they wanted to continue using the app.

The internal interventions proved more popular than the external. “One of our interview participants said that it felt safer to use Chirp when they had these interventions,” Baughan said. “Even though they use Twitter for professional purposes, they found themselves getting sucked into this rabbit hole of content. Having a stop built into a list meant that it was only going to be a few minutes of reading and then, if they wanted to really go crazy, they could read another list. But again, it’s only a few minutes. Having that bite-sized piece of content to consume was something that really resonated.”

Overall, the team said the problem with social media isn’t that people lack self-control but that the platforms aren’t designed to maximize the things they 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.”


Dave Yasvinski is a writer with

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