Do social media tasks affect productivity? Experts; pros, cons.

2017 Sierra Arts Foundation Brew HaHa event Image

Attendees pause to snap a photo or share on social media the Twenty-second Annual Sierra Arts Foundation Brew HaHa at the Nugget Casino Resort, Sparks, Nevada, on Jan. 27, 2017. Photo and article by Patricia Bouweraerts

Casinos around the world lay out their floors without clocks or windows — the guest may lose track of time, focusing on games and lingering at the tables — this disorientation is much like how people have described becoming lost in social media feeds.

Courtney Seiter, director of people at Buffer Inc., uses Facebook to help promote her company.

“Despite my best intentions to stay on track and accomplish my goal, I get sucked in,” she wrote in the BufferApp blog. “Suddenly I’m checking my own notifications, looking at what’s been recently posted and generally forgetting why I came to Facebook in the first place.”

Some studies show that social networking and posting can be a helpful tool, increasing productivity. A brief break to check personal channels boosts output when returning to work tasks. On the other hand, research is starting to surface that social media use is not entirely harmless. Possible risks associated with posting and sharing include reduced attention span, decreased quality of work, depression, and formation of unwanted habits.

Workers such as communication specialists, salespeople, small business marketers, public information or media relations professionals, and journalists may use social media as a needed tool in their job function.

“Although social media are in the top of the agenda for many companies to date, there seems to be very limited understanding of the usage of social media for work purposes,” wrote Ioannis Leftheriotis and Michail Giannakos in their study “Using social media for work: Losing your time or improving your work?

Social media may help job performance, or become distracting

People use social media while on the job for both personal and work-related purposes, including taking a “mental break” during the workday, according to the Pew Research Center.

Employees using social media specifically for work tasks include 19 percent who report they use Facebook for their job, 14 percent use LinkedIn, three percent use Twitter, nine percent use a social media tool provided by their company, and five percent use other platforms, wrote Kenneth Olmstead, Cliff Lampe, and Nicole B. Ellison on

Many who use social specifically for work feel that it is a distraction.

“56 percent of workers who use social media platforms for work-related purposes agree that social media distracts from the work they need to do, with 30 percent agreeing strongly,” wrote Olmstead, Lampe and Ellison. “Some 42 percent of these workers disagree that social media is a distraction.”

Some studies indicate that online interaction increases productivity

“In the end, a majority (56 percent) of these workers believe that using social media ultimately helps their job performance,” according to the 2016 Pew Research Center report. “One-in-five (22 percent) believe that it mostly hurts, 16 percent feel that it doesn’t have much impact either way and four percent see both the benefits and the drawbacks.”

The Leftheriotis and Giannakos study found a correlation between social media use for work and improved productivity.

In their research with close to 1,800 employees in the insurance industry, they found it wasn’t the social technology itself that affected worker productivity, but how the technology was used.

Results showed that insurance workers used social media for exchanging information, checking product updates, competitor monitoring, and fostering trust with clients through relationships and connections. These factors increased employee productivity.

“Two out of three (insurance) employees make use of social media in their work irrespectively of their age,” the scientists wrote.

More than half of the employees in the study indicated they use social platforms to watch the market or competitors.

“Finally, our results not only indicate that social media are not simply a waste of time for employees, but they also significantly and positively impact the employees’ performance,” Leftheriotis and Giannakos wrote. “These results build on the potential of social media as a medium for improving collaboration and knowledge sharing, thereby increasing productivity among employees.”

Social media mental breaks help productivity

Another report published in 2013 found that personal social media “coffee breaks” made a positive impact on worker productivity. The research was conducted at the University of Melbourne, and involved 300 study participants.

“The results of the experiment suggest that Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing replenishes attentional resources more than less enjoyable types of breaks,” wrote Brent L. S. Coker in the study abstract. “The nationwide survey finds a correlation between Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing and perceived productivity for those brought up with the Internet (those younger than 30). Our results add to attention resource theory by providing evidence suggesting enjoyable breaks enable greater continued task vigilance than less enjoyable breaks.”

Alternatively, those who created platforms such as Facebook express regrets

Sean Parker is the co-founder of Napster, and former founding president of Facebook. In a 2017 Axios interview, he spoke about the unintended consequences of a large social network.

“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … it probably interferes with productivity in weird ways,” Parker said.

He said that the primary goal of social platforms is to grab and hold peoples’ attention.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?,’” Parker said on

Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of growth at Facebook, Inc. from 2007–2011, agrees.

In a 2017 interview at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, he said that social media can change brain function, and is programming humanity. He said that social media exploits humans’ needs for feedback, with social media providing quick feedback and the resultant dopamine hit, a burst of well-being.

Palihapitiya said that for the most part, he doesn’t use social media any longer.

“I can control my decisions — which is I don’t use this shit,” he said in the Stanford talk. “I can control my kids’ decisions — which is they’re not allowed to use this shit, and then I can go focus on diabetes and education and climate change. That’s what I can do but everybody else has to soul-search a little bit more about what you’re willing to do — because your behaviors, you don’t realize it but you are being programmed — it was unintentional, but now you (have) got to decide how much you’re willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.”

Former Google employee Tristan Harris said that social media can mask people’s choices, and make it seem as though the choices are individual rather than being programmed by a few technology designers at a few companies who are shaping peoples’ lives.

“’All of our minds can be hijacked,’” he said in an October Guardian article by Paul Lewis. “’Our choices are not as free as we think they are.’”

There are individual vulnerabilities when interacting with large online networks

The Guardian article covered how social media technology can be personalized to specific users.

“An internal Facebook report leaked this year (2017), for example, revealed that the company can identify when teens feel ‘insecure’, ‘worthless’ and ‘need a confidence boost,’ Lewis wrote. “Such granular information, Harris adds, is ‘a perfect model of what buttons you can push in a particular person’. Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive ‘likes’ for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder.”

It is more addicting to receive rewards intermittently, rather than all of the time.

“The most seductive design, Harris explains, exploits that same psychological susceptibility that makes gambling so compulsive: variable rewards,” Lewis wrote. “When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of ‘likes’, or nothing at all. It is the possibility of disappointment that makes it so compulsive.”

Chris Marcellino was an Apple engineer who worked on the back end of push-notification technology introduced in 2009.

“A few years ago Marcellino, 33, left the Bay Area, and is now in the final stages of retraining to be a neurosurgeon,” Lewis wrote, “He stresses he is no expert on addiction, but says he has picked up enough in his medical training to know that technologies can affect the same neurological pathways as gambling and drug use.”

The craving for stimulation is biological

Biological science graduates of Guelph University in Ontario, Mitch Moffit and Gregory Brown produce educational videos on a wide array of science topics. They have even worked with Bill Nye on a video explaining asteroids. One of their AsapSCIENCE Inc. films is “Five Crazy Ways Social Media is Changing Your Brain Right Now.”

In the video, they illustrate the biology associated with time spent in social media.

“Can’t log off?” Moffit and Brown ask in the narration. “Surprisingly, 5–10 percent of internet users are actually unable to control how much time they spend online. Though it’s a psychological addiction as opposed to a substance addiction, brain scans of these people actually show a similar impairment of regions that those with drug dependence have.”

They point out changes in regions of the brain controlling emotional processing, decision-making, and attention.

“Because social media provides immediate rewards with very little effort required, your brain begins to rewire itself, making you desire these stimulations,” Moffit and Brown said. “And you begin to crave more of this neurological excitement after each interaction. Sounds a little like a drug, right?”

They affirm that social media activates release of the feel-good chemical dopamine.

“Using MRI scans, scientists found that the reward centers in people’s brains are much more active when they are talking about their own views, as opposed to listening to others,” they said. “Not so surprising — we all love talking about ourselves right? But it turns out that while 30–40 percent of face-to-face conversations involve communicating our own experiences, around 80 percent of social media communication is self-involved. The same part of your brain related to orgasms, motivation and love are stimulated by your social media use — and even more so when you know you have an audience. Our body is physiologically rewarding us for talking about ourselves online.”

Entrepreneurs study how to keep people hooked on products

“I studied at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford that taught (students how to recognize) exactly these techniques,” Tristan Harris said in his April Vancouver TED Talk. “There’s conferences and workshops that teach people all these covert ways of getting people’s attention and orchestrating people’s lives. And it’s because most people don’t know that that exists that this conversation is so important.”

Guardian writer Paul Lewis described a San Francisco Bay conference, the 2017 Habit Summit, where entrepreneurs and tech designers learn how to make their products addicting.

“They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organizer Nir Eyal,” Lewis wrote. “Eyal, 39, the author of ‘Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,’ has spent several years consulting for the tech industry, teaching techniques he developed by closely studying how the Silicon Valley giants operate.”

Eyal said in the article the impulse to check message notification, or to check in with Facebook or Twitter often is not by chance, it is in the platform’s design.

“He (Eyal) explains the subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create ‘a craving’, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as ‘triggers’,” Lewis wrote.

Sensing frustration, indecisiveness or boredom creates an unconscious need to immediately replace the negative feeling with a positive one, he added.

The brain responds to perceived social success or failure

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., wrote on that the presence or absence of dopamine is one of the important factors in human survival and history.

“The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain monitors social needs by releases (of) dopamine when we achieve social success and inspiring neurochemical deficits when we don’t,” he wrote. “Tragically, social media is not the VTA’s friend.”

He explained that the VTA is in the older, survival-oriented part of the brain.

“The physiological cues that the VTA uses to determine social status from negative social media experiences are the same as those occurring in our ancestor’s brains when the tribe banished them,” he wrote. “Of course, not getting enough likes on Facebook is a lot different than being left to face jackals alone. But the VTA cannot think; it only reads signals and reacts.”


The Buffer Inc. blog writer Courtney Seiter wrote that a correlation has been found between social media use and the perception of being totally absorbed in a task.

Another fascinating (2011) study recorded physiological reactions like pupil dilation in volunteers as they looked at their Facebook accounts to find that browsing Facebook can evoke what they call flow state, the feeling you get when you’re totally and happily engrossed in a project or new skill,” Seiter wrote.

Social media, memory and task performance

“Research at Cornell and Beijing University finds retweeting or otherwise sharing information creates a ‘cognitive overload’ that interferes with learning and retaining what you’ve just seen,” wrote Bill Steele in a 2016 Cornell Chronicle article.

Student study participants at Beijing University were separated into two groups, one group could either share social media content — in Weibo, similar to Twitter — or go on to read the next post, while the second group had only the second option.

“After finishing a series of messages, the students were given an online test on the content of those messages,” Steele wrote. “Those in the repost group offered almost twice as many wrong answers and often demonstrated poor comprehension. What they did remember they often remembered poorly, Wang reported.”

Qi Wang is a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University.

The first study then led to a second.

“After viewing a series of Weibo messages, the students were given an unrelated paper test on their comprehension of a New Scientist article,” Steele wrote. “Again, participants in the no-feedback group outperformed the re-posters.”

For some, social posting may not be work considered as valuable

Cal Newport, Ph.D. is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and author of the book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”

Cal Newport Image

Cal Newport, Ph.D., author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”

“I recently published this book that draws on multiple different strands of evidence to make the point that, in a competitive 21st century economy, what the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and are valuable,” Newport said in a TEDxTysons talk. “If you produce something that’s rare and valuable, the market will value that. What the market dismisses, for the most part, are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value.”

He said that posting to social platforms is an easily replicated task, and that it doesn’t require multiple years of training.

“By definition, the market is not going to give a lot of value to those behaviors,” Newport said. “It’s instead going to reward the deep, concentrated work required to build real skills and to apply those skills to produce things — like a craftsman — that are rare and that are valuable.”

He wrote that the objective of social media companies is to fragment your attention throughout the day.

“We have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention — large portions of your day, breaking up your attention, to take a quick glance, to just check, — ‘Let me quickly look at Instagram’ — that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration,” he said. “In other words, you could permanently reduce your capacity to do exactly the type of deep effort that we’re finding to be more and more necessary in an increasingly competitive economy. So social media use is not harmless, it can actually have a significant negative impact on your ability to thrive in the economy.”

Social media and depression

Three research studies showed that it is more likely that time spent online increases the risk for depression, rather than depression causing more time spent on the Web and social media.

“Two (scientific investigations) followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use,” wrote Jean Twenge on “A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.”

Another study from 2016 points to the correlation of young adults age 19–32 on multiple social media platforms with increased risk of depression.

“Use of multiple SM (social media) platforms is independently associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety, even when controlling for overall (time spent on social media) TSSM,” wrote Brian Primack, Ariel Shensa, César Escobar-Viera, Erica Barrett, Jaime Sidani, Jason Colditz, and A. Everette James.

Many employees who use social media for work need to interact in multiple applications.

Blurring of lines between personal and professional lives

A Facebook user must first have a profile page before adding and managing posts on a company or fan page. New staff members may have a personal profile page already set up when an employer adds the employee as an editor to the company Facebook page. Their personal life is now intertwined with their professional world.

Journalists have traditionally handled interviewing, writing, and coordinating visuals to enhance their stories. Many are now asked to take on the additional task of becoming ‘personalities’. They are encouraged to develop an online following, building larger audiences for the media outlets where they work.

“Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, it may become the case that social networking services become crucial productive resources for certain types of jobs,” wrote Mark Andrejevic, Ph.D. in “Exploitation in the Data Mine,” research chapter of the book Internet and Surveillance: The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media.

He adds that in social media, both consumer and employee unpaid labor reflected by content creation and networking may be somewhat coerced by companies for profit.

“If we need access to such (social networking) services to earn our living — if employers require the creation and exploitation of such networks — and if access is privately controlled, then the standard critique becomes operative.”

He wrote that workers may also be pressed to develop social networks that benefit their professional productivity.

“When employers start to view workers’ social network as exploitable productive resources, the incentive emerges to develop ‘high value’ networks — as defined by the employers’ imperatives,” he wrote. “Networks that once reflected a certain degree of autonomy become subject to the control and imperatives of employers.”

Pal Hargitai, software engineer/architect wrote on that a past employer asked staff members to participate on social platforms.

“Since we were in detachment, they specifically requested us to go on social media to scout for potential jobs and to have an attractive profile to influence your chances to do an interview,” Hargitai wrote. “This was met with a lot of criticism and there was quite a bit of backlash. One reason was the amount of messages and calls etc. from recruiters trying to get us to switch companies. Second was the amount of distraction from the actual work. Third was the privacy concerns and crossing a private/professional line, some were skeptical of social media to begin with and the company was reviewing the social media behavior.”

Overcoming obstacles requires focus

Tristan Harris ends his TED Talk by saying that fixing the problem of social media’s splintering of attention is the basis for tackling other challenges faced by humans. Focused attention is needed for solving all of the most difficult problems, he said.

“There’s nothing in your life or in our collective problems that does not require our ability to put our attention where we care about,” Tristan Harris said in his TED Talk. “At the end of our lives, all we have is our attention and our time. What will be time well spent for ours?”

Ultimately, staff members who use social platforms for professional projects will likely need to decide whether these networks help them to be more productive, or detract from building a portfolio of work they consider valuable.


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