Relatable! Scientists Say You Likely Enter a "Dissociative State" While Scrolling Social Media

Have you ever looked up from scrolling social media your phone and realized hours have passed without you noticing? Then you're very, very much not alone.

A recent study out of the University of Washington describes the ingenious way researchers managed to track just how much "everyday dissociation" — the non-traumatic kind in which we zone out while commuting or doing mundane tasks that don't require our full attention — goes on when we're scrolling social media.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when "doomscrolling" was at an all-time high, UW computer science doctoral candidate and lead study author Amanda Baughan got the idea for an app that connects to users' Twitter accounts and then asks them in intervals, first after three minutes and then again every 15, whether they remembered what they'd just read.

The UW team built out the app, which they named Chirp, and recruited Twitter users use it for a month "as a way to measure dissociation."

The app asked the study participants to rate on a scale how strongly they agreed with a statement that read "I am currently using Chirp without really paying attention to what I am doing."

During the course of the monthlong study, presented at the 2022 CHI conference, 42 percent of participants said at least once that they "strongly agreed" with the statement, and in interviews with some of the subjects, about sixteen percent said they experienced dissociation when using the app.

Alongside the popups asking participants if they were paying attention, the researchers also presented a series interventions which would tell users they were all caught up, have them divide the accounts they followed into lists, show them their account usage for the day, or display a popup telling them how long they'd been using the app and ask them if they wanted to keep doing so. According to UW's write-up of the study, participants said they appreciated the interventions and that they helped them focus.

Though it's far from the first time an app has introduced such interventions — think Netflix and Hulu's "are you still watching?" messages when you're deep in a binge-watch session, or iPhones' usage tracking charts — the data from such interventions can better help researchers study and understand how we relate to social media.

"Social media platforms are designed to keep people scrolling," Baughan said. "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," she added, "so that people can have it fit in their day with their time-management goals."

Cheers to that!

READ MORE: ‘I don’t even remember what I read’: People enter a ‘dissociative state’ when using social media [The University of Washington]

More on app interventions: Google Testing Feature That Scolds You For Using Smartphone While Walking