TikTok allows video up to 10 minutes but says surveys show nearly half of users are stressed by something longer than a minute. An Instagram video can be up to 90 seconds long, but experts think this is the ideal time to maximize engagement less than 15 seconds. Twitter doubled the length of tweets in 2017 to 280 charactersbut the typical length is more like 33 characters.
It’s easy to get sucked into short and sensational content. But worrying about it can hurt your attention span, you should be. There is solid evidence that there are so many demands on our attention more stressedand that the endless social comparison makes us feel worse about ourselves.
Read a book for better mental health.
Studies show a range of psychological benefits from reading books. Reading fiction may be your capacity for it Empathy, through the process of seeing the world through a recognizable character. Reading has been shown to reduce stress just as effectively as reading yoga. It is prescribed for depression – a treatment called bibliotherapy.
Reading books is also a strong expression of curiosity quality appreciated by employers such as Google. Our research shows that reading is just as strongly associated with curiosity as an interest in science, and more strongly than with math skills.
And it’s not just that curious minds are more likely to read because of a thirst for knowledge and understanding. It does, but our research was specifically aimed at examining the role of reading in the development of curious minds.
Read more: Too many digital distractions impair our ability to read deeply, and this is how we can become aware of what’s happening – podcast
Reading and curiosity follow
Us findings come from analyzing data from the Longitudinal studies of Australian youthwhich tracks the progress of young Australians aged 15 to 25.
Longitudinal surveys provide valuable insights by asking the same people – in this case a group of about 10,000 young people. Every year for ten years, they are asked about their achievements, ambitions, education, work and joy of life.
There have been five survey cohorts since 1998, the most recent starting in 2016. We analyzed three of them – those starting in 2003, 2006 and 2009, looking at the data up to age 20, at which age most are employed or looking for one.
The survey data is rich enough to develop proxy measures of reading and curiosity levels. It includes the scores of the participants in the OECD Program for International Student Assessment tests for reading, math and science skills. There are survey questions about time spent reading for pleasure, time spent reading newspapers or magazines, and library use.
To measure curiosity, we used respondents’ answers to questions about their interest in the following:
- learn new things
- thinking about why the world is the way it is
- learn about things you don’t understand
- getting to know a new idea
- find out how something works.
We used statistical models to control for environmental and demographic variables and distinguish between the effect of teenage reading activity on greater curiosity in young adulthood. This modeling gives us confidence that reading is not just related to curiosity. Reading books helps build curiosity.
Gloom and doom scrolling
Does this mean that when you’re older it’s too late to start reading? No. Our results refer to young people because the data were available. Regardless of your age, deep reading has advantages over social media scrolling.
The short-term dopamine rush of scrolling on a device is an elusive promise. It wears us down rather than uplifts us. Our limbic brain – the part of the brain associated with our emotional and behavioral responses – remains caught in a spiral of seeking pleasure.
Studies show a high correlation between media multitasking and attention problems because of cognitive overload. The effect is most apparent in young people who have grown up with it overexposure on social media.
American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is one of the researchers warning that heavy use of social media is a major contributor to the declining mental health of teenage girls:
Boys also fare poorly, but their rates of depression and anxiety are not as high, and their increases since 2011 are smaller.
Why this “gigantic, obvious, international and gendered case”? Haid writes:
Instagram was founded in 2010, when the iPhone 4 was also released, the first smartphone with a front-facing camera. In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, and that’s the year its user base exploded. In 2015, it became normal for 12-year-old girls to spend hours every day taking selfies, editing selfies and posting them for friends, foes and strangers to comment on, while also spending hours each day scrolling through photos of other girls and fabulously wealthy female celebrities with (apparently) vastly superior bodies and lives.
In 2020, Haidt published research show that girls are more vulnerable to “fear of missing out” and the aggression that social media often amplifies. Since then he has become even more convinced of the correlation.
Social media is, by definition, addictive.
With TikTok, for example, videos start automatically, based on what the algorithm already knows about you. But it doesn’t just validate your preferences and feed you opinions that confirm your preconceived notions. It also varies the content so you don’t know what’s coming next. This is the same trick that keeps gamblers hooked.
Tips for getting back into books
If you’re struggling to choose between your phone and a book, here’s a simple tip proven by behavioral science. To change behavior it also helps to change your environment.
Try the following:
Always carry a book with you or leave books in convenient places around the house.
Schedule reading time into your day. 20 minutes is enough. This reinforces the habit and ensures regular immersion in the world of books.
If you don’t enjoy a book, try another. Don’t force yourself.
You’ll feel better about it — and be prepared for a future employer asking you what books you’re reading.