How to stop the endless scroll: saving your attention span

TikTok and Instagram have become the definitive ways of relaxing. Except it isn’t relaxing at all. We don’t know what counts as relaxing and what counts as work anymore. How do we fix our attention span?

We’re all hooked. Let’s not lie to ourselves. We have an attention span problem. It’s what we think about doing when we’re looking to scratch that mental itch. It’s how we pass the time for fear of being bored. Forget books or social interaction. Social Media is the book. Social Media is interaction.

All social media platforms are used in different ways to have a unique selling point. If someone wants to give their take on a film or TV show, he’ll probably turn to the 280 characters of a tweet. A university student has brainstormed a short educational comedy skit? TikTok is her canvas.

In a survey published by BBC Newsbeat, the two most used apps by social media users aged 16-24 were Instagram (which 71% used) and TikTok (68%): the “scrollers”. 

If you read Messy, there’s a solid chance that you spend over an hour a day scrolling through your Insta or TikTok feed, searching for the next ultra-satisfying video of a squishy object being thrown into a grinder or something similarly pleasing.

Hell, you probably came across this article while you were locked into scrolling. So how has that hour of scrolling impacted you?

In the same way that a drug will alter brain chemistry, social media changes how different parts of the brain interact. This impacts a range of functions, like the ability to sleep, comprehending information, and attention span.

TikTok and Instagram more than others have a specific effect on that last one: attention span.

“When it’s more interactive, (i.e., messaging someone on Facebook) you’re interacting with other people. It’s actually beneficial for your brain and your mental health,” said Dr Roseann Capanna-Hodge.

”But when we’re scrolling, there is a negative mental health impact.”

She believes that our scrolling habits and attention spans have never been the same since the pandemic.

“The amount of content, the length of time. How is it impacting brain health? Our kids today and our adults. We are losing our attention spans.”

“When we look at the pandemic, there has been a massive rise in both ADHD diagnosis and medication for ADHD across the globe.”

“It created this perfect storm of social isolation. People overused devices and haven’t moved on. They’re stuck.”

The pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s ability to focus. How do we fix this? What are the manageable things that we can do to save our attention spans?

Locking your apps and attention span trainers

Every single device that you can buy on the market will let you put limits on usage.

However; the daily limits that you can set just by using the in-built functions on a device have an obvious flaw. You can just override it if you don’t feel like adhering to them. It takes a lot of self-discipline to let these targets actually have an impact on your screen time.

So if you want to go one step further you can paradoxically use apps to properly lock yourself out of your most time-consuming apps.

Programs like AppBlock and Flipid, which are free and available on iOS and Android, can lock you out of social media apps for a specified amount of time. What makes them different is that once you’re locked out, that’s it. You aren’t getting back in.

If you want something a bit less cold-turkey, apps like Space and RescueTime focus on the productivity and tracking usage side of things. They give more analysis of your screen time than the in-built settings app and they gamify things to keep you on track. Once again though, the focus is firmly on you to be disciplined and turn the screen off when the notification tells you to.

When using these apps, a good strategy is to set a time in the evening to lock yourself out to get some genuine quiet time. This will give you a few hours to do non-screen-based activities, as well as prepare you for sleep.

“Sleep is so critical for mental health. When you have poor sleep, you’re going to have more anxiety, more mood problems, more focus problems.” said Dr Capanna-Hodge.

Zoetanya Sunjon is program director in communications and media at London College of Communication. She notes that shorter attention spans are part of a cycle which is changing content in the media industry.

“We’ve seen a cultural shift because of social media and because of how people consume information and allocate their attention. Bite-sized content, memes, that type of thing. It caters to shorter attention spans.”

“How do you appeal to an audience who will only put up with shorter and shorter content? The videos get quicker and the attention spans get shorter. This means that thumbnails and clickbait headlines are more important than ever because there is less attention span to compete for.”

Reading is amazing for attention spans

Congratulations. You now have extra time at the end of your day where your ordinarily overstimulated brain still wants something to do. Training your brain to accept that it needs down-time before sleep is crucial and the most enjoyable way to do that is reading.

Because the seamlessness of switching from one app to another encourages multitasking, the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain most responsible for long-term memory and focusing on singular tasks[4], starts to weaken.

Instead we learn to use the striatum. This part of the brain is responsible for learning new skills and is heavily connected to the brain’s reward system; hence we feel satisfied when TikTok gives us new information constantly.  Completing tasks using information we already know just isn’t as rewarding as passive scrolling is.

While reading is still passive, it’s not the bombardment of mostly useless information that scrolling is. Reading in silence without distraction often means the focus is on the hippocampus, strengthening it through regular use. With books, we also learn to pace ourselves and accept that the gratification isn’t instant. 

Reading teaches us to focus on one task and one task only, through the incentive of a satisfying payoff at the end. The brain will get used to this long-term reward scheme, which we see elsewhere in life in the form of projects at work or essays at university.

Getting into the habit of quiet reading every night is a worthwhile way to slowly win back the ability to concentrate on things. 


Another thing which has a multitude of benefits and increases attention span is cooking. 

“Preparing a meal requires executive functioning. You have to plan for it and shop for it and you have to complete a task. Even just saying I’m going to cook on a weekend. It makes you feel good. You take control of what you’re eating. You can make it an interaction with a partner,” said Dr Capanna-Hodge.

Doing things which require the completion of tasks is really important for improving your attention span. Having a goal means we have to devote our attention for a certain amount of time to earn a reward. Again, it tests our hippocampus.

Preparing meals might be something that you’re already doing if you are at university. It saves a boatload of money and god knows students need money.

If so, do it without checking your phone at all. Not while making the food or while eating it. Give yourself the headspace to enjoy the process of cooking and then to enjoy the reward even more.


Unlike reading or cooking, meditation is a good tool for rescuing attention span because it creates a focus on being self-aware. 

Sitting down and looking inwards at your own thoughts instead of outwards develops the prefrontal cortex which is partly responsible for sustained attention and self-control. Strengthening this part of the brain helps to foster the neural connections that support prolonged concentration.

Experiments show that after a continued period of mindfulness meditation, participants claimed they experienced less mind-wandering and improved awareness. As a result, their attention was directed more effectively. 

Only 1 in 5 UK adults read for pleasure everyday. Max Prendergast, 20, is a student at the University of Exeter. He’s noticed the difference that regular social media use has made to his ability to read.

“I only make an effort to read about every 2 months. Even then I rarely finish the book.”

“Part of the problem is that I know that scrolling on Instagram is easier. I know that I’ll get more dopamine quicker just by scrolling through memes.”

“It takes a really, really good movie for me to not spend half of it on my phone.”

We have to get to grips with using technology in ways that are actually good for us. Our screens are wonderful. They let us connect to people in ways which are pretty much magic. But you can have too much of a good thing. So find ways of stopping the scroll to make your mind a little less messy.

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