When’s the last time you read a book from cover to cover? Watched an entire movie without checking your phone or tablet? Put in a solid seven-hour working day uninterrupted by your Facebook feed? Had a phone conversation without scrolling through your inbox or doing a cheeky spot of Googling?
For many of us, these once-ordinary experiences of sustained attention - doing one thing at a time, and doing it for a sustained period - are seem as distant as what my kids used to call "the black and white days."
Between the sheer volume of information we sift through on social media and the hectic engines of the 24/7 media cycle, we are not simply “consuming” much more content. We are gulping it down.
And in snack-size bites - grazing constantly but never actually sitting down to have a meal. Or, for that matter, taking the time to digest what’s been swallowed.
The impact of those new habits of consumption has been the subject of much speculation and considerable handwringing - but, to date at least, precious little data.
That’s now starting to change. And researchers are beginning to confirm what many have long suspected: that our attention spans are shrinking - and with it, our ability to recall information, think creatively or just plain get sh-t done.Fuelling the FOMO
A new study by researchers at the Technical University of Denmark and published this month in the prestigious journal Nature Communication found clear evidence that our collective attention span has been steadily contracting as our access to information sources has exploded.
The scientists studied data from Twitter, Google Trends, Google Books, Reddit and Wikipedia, as well as movie ticket sales and citations of scientific publications. Their conclusion?
“Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly.”
In layman’s terms, our attention spans simply can’t keep up. Topics grab our attention more rapidly - but our interest fades just as quickly, as FOMO (fear of missing out) propels us toward the next shiny online object.Screen-time a risk factor for ADHD
And it’s not just adult attention span that’s going haywire. Canadian research published last week found that by the age of five, children who spent two hours or more looking at a screen each day were 7.7 times more likely to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) compared to children who spent 30 minutes or less daily.
The myth of multitasking
Other research suggests that the now-widespread practice of multi-tasking, sometimes called “double-screening,” is further fuelling the attention crisis.
We are kidding ourselves that toggling from screen to screen is making us more efficient, say researchers. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The more “tasks” we juggle, the more mistakes we make.
Multitasking also plays havoc with short-term memory, causes anxiety and actually inhibits creativity.
But it does save time, right? Wrong. When you try to juggle a bunch of small tasks while also completing a larger one, everything you do will take longer, as the brain needs time to re-set every time you switch attention.
We are kidding ourselves that toggling from screen to screen is making us more efficient, say researchers. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
And that’s for fully formed adult brains. Children are neurologically even less equipped to handle the cognitive load - their protests to the contrary notwithstanding.
"Despite what kids will tell you, their brains aren't up to multitasking," says Family Zone cyber expert, Dr Kristy Goodwin, an expert on the effects of technology on productivity and health, "Teachers, both in private and public schools, are reporting a massive decline in attention spans."