Time flies, because we’re spending almost a quarter of each day scrolling on the internet

The latest neuroscientific research indicates that the addictive dynamics of social media can alter our perception of time

Social media
A reported released in Spain about the state of mobile phone usage notes that each person, on average, spends five hours per day scrolling on a screenAlbert Garcia
Karelia Vázquez

Time isn’t absolute. This phrase – most often attributed to Albert Einstein – certainly applies to the modern phenomenon of scrolling on the internet and totally losing track of the minutes and hours.

A report published in Spain, “Mobile State of 2022,” notes that, on average, a person spends five hours each day with their necks bent downwards, dragging their fingertips across a screen. This activity – according to the latest neuroscientific research – alters our perception of time, making it feel as if it’s slipping away from our hands. After a few hours of scrolling, we hardly remember what we saw, nor realize how much time we spent on the screen.

Engineer Aza Raskin created the infinite scroll feature in 2006. In 2018, he expressed guilt and regret in an interview with the BBC, describing his invention in the following terms: “It’s as if they’re taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that’s the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back.”

That’s why we forget almost everything. We scan, but don’t read. We see, but don’t look. We hear, but barely listen. And time does its job, briskly passing by. Hours go by differently when we roam the internet, says Peter Tse, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College in the US: “Research in my lab shows that events seem to last longer when we pay close attention to them. This is because the brain doesn’t have a clock to measure time – it judges according to the information it has processed. When we pay attention, we process more information per unit of time,” he explains via email, while on a flight from New Zealand to Los Angeles that’s taking forever.

Tse illustrates his idea with an example: “If we’re about to hit a car from behind and cause an accident, we feel that events pass before our eyes in slow motion. This happens because we’re alert, paying more attention and processing more information than if we were relaxed or distracted.”

His first study on the perception of time took place in 2004 – three years before the iPhone came out and two years before Raskin created infinity scroll. His research focused on novelty, another factor that alters our idea of time.

“In hindsight, we’ll only remember jarring, new and exciting experiences vividly. Routine tends to fade quickly”
Peter Tse, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College

“Temporal perception is based on memory. We tend to accumulate more information and perceive time as passing more slowly whenever we do something new. The memory of routine activities – such as changing a baby’s diaper on a daily basis – fades very quickly. For this reason, while we remember that the first days of raising our children were long and exhausting, looking back, it seems to us that they grew up very quickly,” Tse says.

This, the professor believes, demonstrates the role that lack of novelty plays in our perception of the passage of time. If things don’t happen and we don’t pay attention, it seems to us that everything flies by. “In hindsight, we’ll only remember jarring, new and exciting experiences vividly. Routine tends to fade quickly,” he notes.

Another piece of the puzzle is the attention we pay to the passage of time itself. The last minute before the washing machine stops – as we well know – will always be the longest of the day. What happens to us on the internet is a mixture of all this.

“We can be very involved in a video game and, at that moment, perceive time as passing slowly, since we’re not looking at the clock and since many of our actions are repetitive. [However], our memory will tell us, in retrospect, that the game passed by very quickly.”

Instagram promises us a barrage of news every minute… but we go from one story to another without paying close attention, because they all look too similar. We barely remember anything. The experience of scrolling is almost always the same. One day blends into another.

A well-known work published in 2015 was the first to show how much we underestimated the daily time we spend on screens. The authors calculated that our perception of the time we spent scrolling was 20% beneath the real numbers. Eight years later, other researchers suspect that even that figure may have fallen short.

Subsequent studies have explored the alteration of time perception in video games and on Facebook. Andrew Fishman, a social worker, used exercises with minors to show that, on average, children actually play video games for three to five times longer than the time they feel that they spent on a console.

If the scrolling experience is almost always the same, there are few new things to remember about this perfect time-wasting formula. Philip Gable, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware, has shown through his experiments that, when we’re motivated, time seems to fly.

“Scrolling is easy; it doesn’t require any effort. It’s designed so that we scroll without thinking for hours and hours – the promise of finding something new is what keeps us motivated to continue. But the reality is different. What we find is almost always the same: boring, emotionless. We barely remember it. There’s so much information to classify that we don’t remember what we’re leaving behind, [because] there’s no reason to do so.”

For Professor Tse, the problem with spending hours absorbed with the internet is that the more time we dedicate to “virtual occupations,” the more problems we’ll find in our real time, whether it has to do with building personal relationships, developing our careers, or spending time out in nature.

“Social psychology has shown that the most rewarding thing in life is connection. To a person, to a job, to a place. And authentic connections are made by paying attention. There are no shortcuts. With stronger connections, we’ll start getting social rewards from real people, instead of likes and pseudo rewards from online people we barely know.”

Almost anything is better than not being aware of the time we lose. This is how Professor Gable sees it. He approves of the usage of timers, alarms and a phone’s own statistics to get people to stop scrolling, or at least show users the hours spent dedicated to scrolling without order or consciousness.

In the war of attention, we’ll be the big losers if we continue giving our hours up to aimless online wandering. We shouldn’t be slaves to dopamine, seeking small doses of internet stimuli. It’s important to regain control and decide where we spend our time and where to look for the pleasure that we deserve. And not in small doses.

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