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How social media has left us with a lower attention span than a goldfish

The rise of social media has impacted our attention spans and the way we engage

Social  media is consuming our time like never before

The rise and influence of digital devices and social media has had an alarming impact on our attention spans, our social interactions and how we consume media. The average amount of time spent online has more than doubled, increasing from 9.9 hours a week in 2005 to 20.5 hours; the average person checks their phone around 50 times a day. Constant digital engagement has seen our attention dwindle, and we’ve now slipped behind the humble goldfish; in 2000 the average attention span was 12 seconds – it has since fallen to a dismal eight, just below a goldfish’s nine.

When socialising, everyone seems to have one eye (or both) on their phone; social norms are compromised as people are increasingly distracted. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information in the US, 79 per cent of participants in a study admitted to dual-screening (using a portable digital device) while watching television, and 52 per cent checked their phones every half hour. This constant bombardment of information and stimulation is changing the nature of attention and how we interact in the digital world and real life.

Our changing consumption of media
The impact of social media is apparent in New Zealand’s news media and television entertainment. From digitisation and streaming to the visibility of public opinion, the ground is shifting. In her role as social media producer for the Paul Henry Show, Charlotte Ryan sees first-hand the impact of social media and our dwindling attention span and develops strategies to suit. “Due to social media, people have a lot less patience with TV – ads annoy people; online they don’t have to deal with them,” she says. People can choose to watch when [and what] they want online.”  A plethora of digital options means audience commitment is low. “There are so many stories to read online, so we need to give them a reason to click into ours and tease them with information; headlines are very important to draw people in,” says Charlotte. Content must be attention grabbing to compete in an information-saturated world. Journalist and presenter Samantha Hayes of Newsworthy and 3D believes that, although people’s interest is flighty, if content is compelling and new they “will seek it out and make time to watch it, either in a digital format or on television”.

Charlotte believes the changing nature of digital consumption means “news needs to be presented on social media in a very different way – you need to make videos much shorter and snappier”. As a result, media outlets are evolving a platform-specific approach with digestible content. “I might ask a question in my post because I know it will get lots of feedback,” says Charlotte. “You’re providing a forum for people to debate and discuss.” Accessibility is key, providing a fast-moving forum of debate is essential to engage and grow the audience. Samantha says the importance in harnessing a digital community is key in news media. “There’s a transfer of information that we hope compels people to watch our shows and make them part of our group of friends, so they engage with the stories and the show on a personal level.”

A sense of community makes people more inclined to pay attention and engage. Constantly updated feeds mean audiences are sceptical and dismissive of a media outlet that is slow on the uptake; no longer does society wait for the evening news, we’re now plugged into current events all day with constant live updates. Samantha believes the evolution of news is strategic: “In the past there was a propensity to save our exclusive footage and interviews for the 6pm bulletin or whichever show we work on. We can’t do that anymore. We can’t pretend people haven’t seen the news and engaged with it via Facebook and multiple websites throughout the day.” As stories unfold, reporting sees the progression of content and addition of value and perspective – all alongside public conversation and input via social media. Charlotte sees local media in a state of flux, with audiences adapting and changing. “Because of online and social media, TV and radio are making lots of changes. If they don’t get involved with it, they will be left behind – and they know it.”

Where to now?
We may have become better at managing demands for our attention, but combating divided attention is as much about cognitive behaviour as social decorum and productivity. Studies have proven that training can lengthen the attention span, however experts question whether training the brain in one specific area can improve brain functioning across others areas. A strategic approach can help – set a task and give yourself an allotted time to complete it with no distractions, for example commit to cleaning for 40 minutes, then reward yourself with screen time. Interval training helps you manage time and tasks while also improving attention. Switch your phone to flight mode, or disable your wifi to focus on a task; it’s liberating to be free from notifications and the lure of web browsing. If possible, leave your phone at home – meet a friend at a set time and give them your attention.

Although our attention spans are decreasing, some people see this as a natural evolution. Dr Bruce Morton, a professor and member of the neuroscience faculty at the University of Western Ontario, believes it’s a logical response to our growing appetite for new information. “Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn’t mean that the way our attention actually can function has changed. Digital technologies dovetail seamlessly into the information processing abilities of our brain.” While our cognitive and social behaviour is evolving, we must identify when this hinders how we engage with the world around us.

Attention – how it works and why it’s changing
A recent Microsoft study identified three key attention types we use to navigate our digital world. Sustained Attention is the ability to focus for long periods on one thing, while Selective Attention describes focus among competing distractions and Alternating Attention characterises the ability to quickly switch between different tasks. The study revealed that in a multi-screen world, Selective and Alternating attention are becoming essential skills, with 50 per cent of under 25s having high Selective Attention; heavy multi-screeners have the lowest Selective Attention, but the highest Alternating Attention. According to the study, as cognitive functioning shifts, “our brains are changing in response to use of digital technology and the result is an evolution of attention skills. Intensive use of technology [results] in development of new cognitive talents that better suit a more digital lifestyle”. Depending on how you look at it, our ability to focus is either declining or evolving as digital distractions increase.

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