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  • Teun Siebers

The Attention Game

The game is simple: Two parties compete for attention and the winner grows stronger. This is repeated over and over again, and it is almost impossible to stop. Given these basic rules, would you accept to play if you knew that the other party consists of the richest and most technically skilled people on earth? Personally, I wouldn’t, but unfortunately, they have already started.

I refer here to the digital empire of social media that has emerged in the past decades. Social media platforms are omnipresent these days, competing for our attention almost all day, and ‘taking over’ parts of our life. If you have seen the documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ by Jeff Orlowski, you get the idea. Driven by advertisers, platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have become more intrusive than ever before.

This intrusiveness can be attributed to the fact that the flow of information and communication has literally become closer to our bodies, as it moved “from our office to our bag, to our pocket, to our wrist” (Valkenburg & Piotrowski, 2017), and will probably soon occupy our field of vision via smart glasses. Besides, the content displayed via social media has become more socially rewarding and aesthetically pleasing.

Giving in to notifications, messages, snaps, and intervening advertisements means that we cannot dedicate our attention to tasks related to our long-term goals, such as academic achievement. At first, this link might seem a bit far-fetched, but note that the game is repeated over and over, every second of the day. So… the stakes are high!


Your biggest asset in this game is self-control: The ability to inhibit or override temptations that are in conflict with long-term goals (Diamond, 2013). If people have the mental capacity and motivation to resist temptations, this could lead to successful self-control. If not, tempting triggers are likely to result in self-control failure. For adolescents, the brain regions that are associated with self-control are not yet fully developed (Casey & Caudle, 2013), and since most adolescents already possess mobile digital technology, the game is particularly challenging for them.


In project AWeSome, we investigate whether increased social media use can lead to impaired self-control, and reversely, whether moments of depletion will result in increased social media use among adolescents. We hereby take a person-specific approach to discover who are most at risk of ending up in a negative reinforcing spiral. We want to know who the real victims of the attention game are, portrayed as the zombie-like teenagers in The Social Dilemma.

Our preliminary results show that just over half of adolescents (52%) experience more failure of self-control during hours they spend more time on social media. For the other half, this relationship was not found, which emphasizes the need for the person-specific approach. Our next step will be to answer the causality question: What comes first, social media use or self-control failure?

A lost game?

Although our self-control mechanisms cannot accommodate the rapid change in digital technology, I would not necessarily say that it is a lost game. Recent studies have shed light on a promising idea, namely that of proactive strategies. The strategies refer to actions that avoid temptations in the first place, such as turning off the phone, setting limited screen time, and downloading content blockers (e.g., against ads or news content). The advantage of proactive strategies is that the decision to engage in tempting behavior is made prior to the trigger, and not in the heat of the moment.

In conclusion, an arms race has emerged between social media platforms and the consumer - and both are eager to win the attention game. Given that the adolescent’s brain is still developing, this game is more challenging for them. Research shows that some of them are more affected than others. While promising ideas arise to help the individual, our research team aims to identify how the interaction between social media use and self-control failure manifests and who is most vulnerable. When combining the two fields, the weakest players can be supported. After all, quitting the attention game means quitting social media, and that takes away the fun, so let’s master it!


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