According to a new Microsoft study, attention spans have fallen by four seconds in recent years- in 2000 the average attention span was 12 seconds but today it is only eight seconds.
2,000 participants were surveyed by researchers in Canada. They played attention retention games that required them to focus while doing repetitive tasks, checked pictures for differences to demonstrate their ability to ignore distractions and used letter games to test their ability to complete competing tasks. In a second part of the study, researchers used electroencephalograms (EEG scans) to view and study the brain waves of 112 others while they interacted with media at the same time as completing other activities.
The results of these studies showed that the average attention span for humans has fallen by four second since 2000 when the mobile revolution started. To put this into perspective, goldfish are said to have an attention span of nine seconds. It is thought that the ‘mobile revolution’ along with laptops, social media and the movement to generally digital lives is to blame for the findings.
The study, commissioned by Microsoft, says that Canadians who have digital lifestyles, such as consuming a lot of media, being early adopters of technology or using social media frequently, find it difficult to focus when a long span of attention is needed. However there were some positives such as the fact that humans have an improved ability to multitask.
The study goes on to say that digital lifestyles can decrease overall attention span, but that is only true in the long term. Those who use social media often and adopt new technology early ‘front load’ their attention, having occasional bursts of high attention. They can ‘commit things to memory’ more easily and find it easier to decide what they do or don’t want to engage with. The study also says that technology has improved our ability to multitask and that those who live a digital lifestyle are better at ‘simultaneously processing information from different sources’.
A separate study carried out the National Centre for Biotechnology Information and the National Library of Medicine found that 79% of participants use devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops while watching television, known as ‘dual screening’. A researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute named Bruce Morton has suggested that this is because humans crave information.
He explains it in terms of cars, saying that when the car was first invented there was no need to put entertainment devices inside it because ‘the car itself was the entertainment’. However, as time went on people became bored with the length of traveling they were doing with their car and so radios and video displays were integrated. He says that we allocate our attention differently as a result of the technology we use, however the way our attention functions hasn’t changed.
Evidence seems to point to new technology, particularly smartphone use that has decreased our attention span. However, it is worth noting that the Microsoft study in particular was particularly focused on determining effective marketing strategies rather than being carried out for interest’s sake- the foreword states “Today, multi-screening is a given, so it’s reassuring to know that multiple screens don’t reduce the (potential) impact of advertising.“
In addition to the above, only 2,000 Canadians in one study and 112 Canadians in the second study were tested, plus the study was titled ‘How does digital affect Canadian attention spans?’, so it may not be possible to generalise the results to billions of people that live in other countries across the world outside of Canada.
Despite the possible low relevance of the study, those who are worried that they really do have an attention span shorter than their pet fish may find help in two other studies. These have suggested ways in which we can increase our attention span, which may assist in reducing the negative effects of technology suggested by Microsoft’s study. A 2013 study from the University of Granada found that increasing physical activity may improve a person’s attention span, while a 2010 study by the Association for Psychological Science found that meditation helped people to improve their concentration abilities. Although our attention spans may well be decreasing for some types of tasks, we needn’t yet worry about our ability to function in modern life.