Working on yet another essay, you sit with your back propped comfortably in the homey nook of your chair. The screen illuminates the room with a soft white hue as the clickity clacks of your keyboard fill the otherwise unbroken silence. Finally, deciding on the topic and the introduction, you begin your somber march towards the assignment’s completion, checking the time as you do: 8:12 PM. Plenty of time. You’re a couple of sentences in when all of a sudden “bzzt bzzt” your phone shakes the table breaking your concentration. Motivated, you get back to the essay you’re writing, typing feverishly and completing the next sentence you drag your finger across the screen finding another one of those cooking trick videos. Astounded, you look back at the clock. 9:42 stares glaringly back at you; an hour and a half, gone. Frustrated and fearful of the impending deadline you resume your work only to find yourself once again caught in the addictive clutches of Tik Tok, doom-scrolling away any hope of completing the assignment by a reasonable time.
The story of endlessly wasting precious minutes on various social media outlets or games instead of work is a relatable story for many. But that makes sense right? Clearly, with our vast exposure to new methods of time-wasting and technological advancements that brought a buzzing attention whore into the pockets of many, a parallel drop of focus should occur. Statistics even claim that “the average attention span is down from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds now. That is less than the nine-second attention span of your average goldfish” (Maybin). With a fish’s apparent superiority in time management, the prospect for an argument against this decline looks uncompromisingly bleak, or does it? Just as many people argue that the decrease in long-term focus may be a hoax and that many of the examples used as evidence for this decrease may actually be causing the opposite. So, that leaves the question, is there truly a decline in the average person’s attention span? Or, is the concept of this deterioration simply hearsay?
Perhaps the most commonly cited evidence for the human race’s collective reduction of attention lies in social media. With 4.48 billion people now using at least one variety of this service (double the number of users from 2015) it’s no wonder it’s such a common and relatable example (“Social”). The average person spends about 2 hours and 24 minutes a day ( 5 years, if an individual lives until 70) on social media; their exposure to the short clips they receive makes them addicted to the simple, quickly packaged videos and pictures social networks feed them. According to Neurologist Lady Greenfield, this comes from the various sites’ provision of“‘instant gratification’ due to the instantaneous nature [of the information] that operates at ‘unrealistic timescales…’ encourag[ing] the reward center of the brain to signal as it does with drug use… [and accustoming] the brain to operate on unrealistic time scales” (Deitchman). As the brain becomes used to the short bursts of information received from social media the reward pathway triggers, causing a mental link between these short clips and positive neural transmitters. Ultimately, the result of this is a deterioration of focus in favor of the bursts of positively received information that come from social platforms. Despite this, studies show that “routine social media use—for example, using social media as part of everyday routine and responding to content that others share—is positively associated with three health outcomes [social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health]” (Roedar). These benefits are helpful in producing a happier environment, as well as physically improving the health of networking app users. With them, a contradictory argument emerges that the growth and use of social media can help foster situations that actually benefit the individual in ways that are conducive to improved attentiveness and attention endurance. With better health and mindsets these users claim the opposite of those who preach mental training, showing the true indecisiveness of the issue of social media.
With the rise of social media and technology use also comes a very expressive and distracting notification system. The direct result of this desperate attention-seeking system is, of course, a diversion of focus from the task at hand. Which instead shifts to curiosity about whatever correspondence the individual received. At first glance this may not seem like such a big deal, just a small moment of response to whatever app or whatever person needed something; however, “the average professional receives 304 emails every week, checks her smartphone 150 times per a day and spends 28 hours each week reading and responding to emails” (“Infographic”). The constant distraction of a device’s presence costs the average worker over a day of time and focus by itself in a week, but that’s not all. Stopping and checking a phone around 150 times means stopping in the middle of tasks or work, scratching an individual’s itch to know why their device notified them in the first place. Constantly having this urge and these notifications during working hours ultimately prevents workers from focusing on one task for an extended period of time; training them into sectional, short-stinted working periods, between which they check their devices. Ultimately, this on/off work pattern causes a decrease in the worker’s focus endurance. Despite this, there is an argument for the fact that technological notifications may not be a problem that genuinely affects attention span. Discluding the simple possibility of turning off these notifications and silencing the device, “we can become so strongly conditioned to expect a reward each time we look at our phone we don’t need to wait for a ping to trigger the effect” (Horwood). Pings and vibrations don’t necessarily make you pick up your device. In fact, the notifications from technology may have little effect by themselves on anyone’s attention span. The real issue becomes the psychological change that trains your brain in a way that makes it “expect a reward.” Things like a break from work, a text, funny pictures or clips, etc. The main argument claims that the distraction from a technological device remains similar when notifications are both on and off, which critics of the declining attention span theory argue negates the possibility of physical interruption’s effect.
Greater access to information may ultimately result in a loss of focus or attentiveness and reduce the amount of time an individual can stay on task. According to a new study by a team of European scientists, the human capacity for receiving that abundance of information can be exceeded by the sheer amount we have access to: “allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed” (HÖVEL). With more information being fed to the average consumer day by day, the individual must learn how they can filter through all of the information, and remember the most important details. Postdoc Philip Lorenz-Spring presents a similar idea explaining that “content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more rapidly” (HÖVEL). Ultimately these studies demonstrate that as humans gain access to more information they run out of the energy and attentiveness necessary for understanding the news they recieve. Due to human’s lack of comprehensive ability, when this kind of information overload occurs the brain responds by becoming tired of the subject, seeking a new concept or topic of focus. With the constant flow of information technology offers the population suffers this effect constantly, increasingly limiting individuals’ ability to focus on one task as we gain access to more and more information. Even to this point, however, there are still plenty of individuals who are critical of the studies’ information. Dr. Gemma Briggs, a lecturer at the Open University is one of those critics claiming that “‘average attention span’ is pretty meaningless. ‘It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is’” (Maybin). Briggs and others who don’t believe in a reduction of attention spans claim that the amount of information has nothing to do with the amount of attention given. Instead, these groups support the notion that attention must be dictated by interest, varying based on an individual’s interest in the information they are considering. From this perspective, the same statistics used as support for the idea of lowered attention spans due to higher informational access may just be a result of more topics being considered. The argument ultimately claims that if an individual with the same attention span receives more information then they will automatically find more things they have little interest in, showing the supposed increase in attention deficits.
With the dawn of new technological advancements and access to all sorts of inventions that may reroute human interest, the idea that our ability to remain focused on a singular subject suffers seems like the next logical conclusion. But, with every argument for our supposed decline in attentiveness, an equal amount of support falls behind a counterargument for how human it may have improved or remained the same. With so much analytical opinion on both sides and so little concrete evidence, it remains currently impossible to come to a satisfying resolution as to whether or not we face a trend of decreasing attention spans.