A Little Bit of Everything, All of the Time

How companies fight for your attention and engagement, and how you can change that.

by Megan Wooters / Garnet & Black

Your eyes stare blankly ahead, focusing but never really focusing. They glaze over themselves as they become overwhelmed with what they are seeing. Your hands move in slow, predictable movements, enough to keep a steady stream of information flowing from the fountain. Your fingers move swiftly. This is a motion you’ve done thousands of times, a movement so known to you that it isn’t even noticeable. Your brain turns itself off, the senses bombarded with loud sounds and bright flashes of light that dull you until you don’t even remember where you are. And so the spiral continues, the fountain of information flowing and flowing, never-ending, like a river that stretches into the ocean.

There always seems to be something happening in our world today. From the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep, there is always something vying for our attention. Social media apps that seek to feed you endless amounts of content that keep you scrolling and scrolling for hours. News stations running every hour, every day, telling you of horrific acts happening halfway across the globe. Media companies that want you to binge watch their new show, the gaming industry forcing you to pay money just so you can get the newest look and advertisements being drilled into your head over and over until they’re stuck. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with products, services and companies all vying for our attention, all seemingly negligent or indifferent to the effects they have on us as a population. 

It’s hypocritical for me as a writer, someone who works to provide people with content to read and enjoy, to write that there is too much content in the world. It’s hypocritical for me to say that you should read less, watch less and engage less; but there is truth to the narrative that many people are overwhelmed with the information presented to them on a daily basis. I don’t write this to blame anyone for falling into the trap that these industries create. I write this so you, the reader, can be aware of how companies fight for your time so that you can truly make it your time.

The effects social media can have on your mental health are well documented. Dr. Christine Stabler is the vice president of academic affairs and the general director of women’s health at Lancaster General Medicine. She writes that social media can have similar effects as a slot machine. Since you don’t know the content until it is opened, it can create a sense of reward by releasing dopamine. This is most prevalent with TikTok, whose algorithm exists to serve you endless content. You never know what you’ll get from the next video, and that anticipation, coupled with the release of dopamine when you find a video you enjoy, creates a desire to continue scrolling to continue feeling that dopamine hit. Eventually, your body builds up a dopamine tolerance, requiring more stimuli to receive the same effect as you experienced originally. This creates a loop of needing more engagement, more videos and more scrolling until you get the reward you're used to. Because of this, Stabler recommends watching out for warning signs of this behavior, including spending more time with social media than with friends or family, noticing declining school work, or de-prioritizing self-care practices. Stabler recommends exercise, gatherings, volunteer work, or spending time with friends as a good way to curb social media habits and reduce the hold that these apps could have over you.

The effects the news cycle can have on you are much less obvious, although they work in much the same way. Dr. Logan Jones, a psychologist based in New York, said “Unfortunately, a lot of the news we consume today isn’t so much reporting as it is a way of keeping people addicted to the news cycle.” Jones states that sensational headlines get more attention, which drives news outlets to often focus on disaster reporting, creating constant negative information for us to engage with. This constant negative content can activate the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and long-term can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation. The response to COVID-19 sweeping through our country, the never-ending information on the war with Ukraine and the inflation nightmare best exemplify the news' ability to create a fear in us that keeps us watching all day, every day. 

To combat this, doctors recommend limiting news and social media to around thirty minutes a day and simply turning the news off once you have gotten any vital information that you might need for safety concerns. Bill Frye, a student on campus at the University of South Carolina, agrees. "The news is fine in moderation, but people can get overwhelmed easily, and it's important to understand when you've had enough and turn it off."

It is hard to avoid the overwhelming amount of information and sensory overload thrown at you daily. Whether it is social media driving endless scrolling or news outlets reporting sensationalist headlines to keep you engaged, it can often be hard to even realize you are being manipulated into driving their engagement. Now more than ever, it is important to stay informed and up to date with what is going on in the world around us. But that does not mean we are obligated to spend our days scrolling mindlessly through our phones, staring blankly ahead at the news hoping that it'll tell us something we haven't heard before. 

Instead, take this time to make connections with people you can spend real, meaningful time with. It's important as well to take the steps to actually make a difference. When the news wants to tell you everything is going wrong, there are places right here on campus where you can help make things better. You are in control of your narrative. You decide what you pay attention to, what you give your time to and what you care about. Make sure you're paying attention to the right things.