“Oh, you know, busy.”
Increasingly among my generation, it’s the response that has replaced “fine” as the platitude of choice. The blistering pace of American industry is now fueled by business and productivity apps, enabling us to get more done at progressively faster rates.
So too has technology reshaped how we consume media and entertainment. The vast amount of information we digest at work and home is having an unforeseen effect — our attention spans are shortening with every step on the technological ladder.
While difficult to measure, experts place the average sustained attention span of an adult at no more than 20 minutes. The transient or short-term attention span has been pegged at around 12 seconds. In a recent study, Microsoft researchers concluded that our short-term attention spans have decreased from 12 to eight seconds since 2008, the start of the mobile revolution. Dramatic decreases were seen among those who spent the most time in front of screens, behavior most exhibited by the younger demographic in the study.
Among those who were heavy internet, social media and multi-screen users, both transient and sustained attention spans lagged substantially behind their peers.
Younger people’s relationships with smartphones draw a stark contrast to those of their older counterparts, as 52 percent of respondents aged 18-24 agreed with the statement “I check my phone at least every 30 minutes” compared to 6 percent of those aged 65 and up. That’s a big range, but it’s a good expression of a generation gap some fear is widening.
People whose attention spans are blunted by internet use work much harder to focus on a given task. This can have broad-ranging implications for reading ability at a young age, test scores in school, and all the way through to workplace performance.
So, it stands to reason that jobs requiring long periods of focus will be more difficult for the digitally fixated. Outside of reduced focus, overuse of on-screen media can impair deep thinking and problemsolving skills.
Now, I’m no Luddite — I depend on desktops, laptops, my phone and other devices for my daily work. In fact, a big part of my job is educating people on how to take advantage of new technologies. But in any given week, I know that I’ll be spending as much time outdoors or engaged (in person) with friends and family as I will behind a screen. It’s both a personal need and a conscious choice.
Of course everyone should walk away from their computer every now and then, and limiting access for kids is a no-brainer, but do those “enjoy nature or else” PSAs really work? Should we expect a conscious effort from humanity to limit our onscreen time? It doesn’t seem realistic.
The Microsoft study concludes that with a reduced attention span comes shortened mental processing time and better retention. Media and devices, the study posits, will begin to evolve, providing information more quickly to ready eyes. Our full use of available technology is inevitable, and there’s no argument in favor of slowing down progress. Over time tech will continue to shape us, and our real-world experiences will catch up with our retrained brains.
Until then, it doesn’t hurt to put down the smartphone and drop a line in the water every now and then.
Nick Mouledous is a 26-year-old marketing consultant, avid outdoorsman and a marginal food and music critic. He works for Bizzuka Inc. in Lafayette.