If you’re anything like the average human, in the time it took you to read this sentence, you probably got distracted…
Okay, maybe not quite, but I’m not far off! A study performed by technology giant Microsoft (2015) has found that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds to a mere eight, in just thirteen years. This puts us one second behind the animal given to young children as a foolproof pet – the goldfish. No wonder we hold so many toilet funerals!
If this is the case, why are we losing the ability to pay attention?
Microsoft puts this down to our increasingly digital lifestyle, claiming that the human brain is adapting to a rapidly changing way of receiving and communicating information. We now consume more media, across multiple screens, in shortened forms that require less concentration than ever before (Microsoft Canada 2015, p.46).
Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom, the study also revealed that while we may struggle to focus in environments requiring prolonged attention, we now experience intense periods of higher attention. Those leading digital lifestyles, particularly young children, have become more effective at identifying what they do/don’t want to engage with, and need less time to process and commit things to memory.
The work of Prensky (2001, p. 3) supports this idea, claiming that children born in the digital age think differently than their older counterparts. Owing to their experiences, ‘Digital Natives’ are said to develop hypertext minds, able to leap between different tasks and stimulus almost effortlessly.
An experiment conducted for Sesame Street aimed to determine whether this was truly the case. Half of a group of children were shown the program in a room filled with toys. As predicted, the group with toys was distracted and watched the show only about 47 percent of the time as opposed to 87 percent in the group without toys. But, when the children were tested for how much of the show they remembered and understood, the scores were exactly the same (Prensky 2001, p.4-5). This shows that kids in the toys group were focusing strategically, distributing their attention between playing and viewing, so that they looked at what was for them the most informative part of the program. This concept is known as ‘media multitasking’, or the consumption of more than one item or stream of content at the same time (Ophir, Nass & Wagner 2009, p. 3)
Although I was born before the widespread use of smartphones or social media, I would still argue that those of us in our early twenties are more like the ‘digital natives’ than previous generations. To find if this is the case, I decided to conduct an experiment that mirrors the Sesame Street test.
I tasked a friend with watching a five-minute segment of David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef, with no other technology present. I then asked her three questions about the contents of the video, which she correctly answered. After this, I had her play a high-speed phone game, while playing a new section of the program. This time however, she was only able to answer one of the questions correctly, and claimed to have only heard “about 4 phrases”.
While it’s interesting to note that she was not able to distribute her attention in the same way the children of the Sesame Street test did, this is most likely due to the intense nature of the game. I won’t call her a goldfish just yet, we’ll wait for the next test results at least!
Microsoft Canada 2015, ‘Attention Spans,’ Consumer Insights, pp. 3-44.
Ophir, E Nass, C, & Wagner, A 2009, ‘Cognitive control in media multitaskers,’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 37, pp. 3-9.
Prensky, M 2001, ‘Do they really think differently?’ On the Horizon, vol. 9, no. 6, pp. 1-8.