A new study shows that social media is more distracting than other aspects of the Internet.

By Amanda MacMillan
February 10, 2017

We’ve all had the experience of logging onto Facebook to post a link or check out what a friend is up to, only to look up 45 minutes later with no idea how so much time had passed. Now, science confirms it: The social-media time-suck is real.

To test whether people underestimate time spent on social media more than on other Internet activities, scientists from the University of Kent in the UK monitored 44 people while they viewed 20 different images on a screen. Five images were associated with Facebook, five were associated with the Internet in general (a widely recognized email icon, for example), and 10 were considered neutral “control” images that were similar in color and shape.

When the participants were asked to rate whether each image was shown for a “short” or “long” period of time (about half a second versus a second and a half), they found that people tended to underestimate the time they spent looking at Facebook-related images more than any others. Viewing the general Internet images also resulted in underestimation, but to a lesser degree. The results are published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Lead author Lazaros Gonidis, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology, explains that people need to pay attention to time in order to be accurate at keeping it. “Anything that distracts us makes us less accurate, and to be more specific, it makes us underestimate the duration of events,” he says.

In short, he explains, that’s why time flies when we’re having fun. “On the other hand, when we’re bored—let’s say during a non-interesting event—we tend to focus more on time keeping and looking forward to the event finishing.” 

The study’s findings confirm that people find Facebook stimulating and distracting, he says, although it’s not entirely clear why its effect was stronger than that of the general Internet images.

“It could very well be that Facebook is more personal to us than just surfing the web,” Gonidis says. “Hence, it has a greater emotional impact on us that leads to greater underestimation.”

Getting sucked into Facebook can certainly be an inconvenience, but Gonidis cautions that it can come with real dangers, as well. “What we have shown is that this frequent use of Facebook distorts our time perception,” he says. “In reality, this could mean that people may involuntarily stay on Facebook more than they originally planned and this could have implications on their productivity, personal relations, resting/sleeping time, etc.”

To avoid going down this road, Gonidis recommends deciding in advance how much time one will spend on Facebook, and maybe even setting an alarm or another type of reminder when it’s time to log out. “In a sense, be more mindful of how long we want to stay connected,” he says.

Finally, he adds, Internet addiction is a real thing—and it may signal other health issues, as well. Anyone who is concerned about the time they’re spending on social media, or online in general, may want to talk to a mental-health professional.

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