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Foto: Teun Siebers

UvA PhD student: Social media do indeed cause poorer concentration and sleep

Jip Koene,
16 april 2024 - 09:54

Social media affect young people’s ability to concentrate and sleep, research by PhD student Teun Siebers shows. “We no longer seem able to have a normal conversation on the train or at the dinner table. That really needs to change.”

In the Irish village of Greystones, parents collectively agreed with schools not to give their children a smartphone until secondary school. Indeed, peer pressure is said to be the reason why children are being introduced to social media and smartphone use at an increasingly younger age, with all kinds of consequences. It is one of the examples cited by PhD student Teun Siebers as a result of his research into the effects of social media on students’ ability to concentrate, procrastination, and sleep quality.

Ban on secondary schools

As of January 2024, the use of cell phones is no longer allowed in Dutch secondary schools. Beginning with the new school year (2024-2025), primary education will also follow suit.

On average, schoolchildren spend about 6.5 hours a day on their smartphones. Social media and other apps are said to distract them too much from their learning tasks, resulting in poorer performance. But there are few studies on the effects of smartphone use on concentration. Previous research has focused on self-reporting and anecdotal evidence. Siebers has changed this with his doctoral research by conducting large-scale questionnaires among young people and tracking their smartphone activity. It showed that social media in particular have negative effects on young people’s ability to concentrate. In addition, young people also experience poorer sleep when using certain apps.

“Smartphones are tools of mass distraction”

Variance by individual
Siebers tracked the social media and smartphone use of some 380 high school students for his research. Using 55,000 questionnaires and continuous tracking of smartphone activity, he concluded that social media and smartphone use is highly distracting for a great many of the young people, but that it depends on the person to what extent procrastination or sleep quality is affected. Therefore, Sieber writes in his thesis: “Smartphones are tools of mass distraction.”
“In particular, schoolchildren who briefly check their phones for possible new status updates suffer most from concentration problems and procrastination,” Siebers says. “Scholars who take longer to use their phones get less distracted because they make a conscious decision to create a moment for it. Their use is less fragmented or more persistent. So, user pattern matters for the degree of distraction.”

When using social media and video games, adolescents experienced more restlessness before bedtime than when watching videos on YouTube or Netflix

Cognitive stimuli
In addition to distraction and procrastination behaviors, Siebers researched the influence that smartphones have on young people’s sleep quality. While no negative influence of general use was found, there were significant differences in the influence of different types of apps. For example, when using social media and video games, adolescents experienced more restlessness before bedtime when using social media and video games, for example, than when watching longer videos on YouTube or Netflix.
“One explanation may be that adolescents experience more cognitive stimulation when using social media and video games than when using video player apps,” Siebers believes. “Social media and game apps are often built to hold your attention and continuously present something new to you. This makes it very tempting to keep scrolling or play another game.”
Importance of social media and self-regulation
Siebers’ research shows clearly what has long been the social sentiment regarding social media and smartphone use. Not only are the effects visible in school, but its use is also taking its toll in public spaces. “Besides poorer learning performance, its use also creates unsafe situations in traffic,” Siebers says. “In addition, we no longer seem able to hold a normal conversation on the train or at the dinner table, for example. That really needs to change,” he says.
According to Siebers, the solution is not in banning the technology but in getting smartphone use under control. “Despite the fact that smartphone use is very distracting and a real concern, we should not underestimate its importance,” Siebers believes. “Social media and smartphones are important ways and means to keep in touch with each other,” he said.
“Social media is also a very important area for adolescents to discover themselves. Therefore, betting on self-regulation, where they learn to control their use, is very important. Initiatives such as in the Irish village of Greystones and the newly introduced Dutch policy can support young people and their parents well in this.”
Teun Siebers will receive his doctorate on Tuesday, April 16th at 4:00 p.m. for his dissertation: “Tempting triggers: The effects of adolescents’ social media use on distraction, task delay, and sleep.” The defense will take place in Agnietenkapel and is free to attend.