We are in the midst of a battle for our attention. Our devices have captured our brains and destroyed our collective ability to concentrate – to such an extent that we are even witnessing the emergence of a “generation of goldfish”. This is, at least, a story that is being told more and more often. But is it worth paying attention to?
Journalist Johan Hary’s new book, Stolen Focus, has just joined a chorus of voices lamenting the crisis of attention in the digital age. His and other recent books reflect and perhaps fuel the public perception that our attention is under attack.
Indeed, in new research by the Institute of Politics and the Center for Attention Studies at King’s College London, we have identified some obvious problems.
Faced with the findings of our study, it is easy to nostalgia for the past that existed before the digital revolution. But were new technologies to blame for causing distraction crises long before the digital age, since how do we need to respond to current challenges?
In September 2021, we surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,093 UK adults, asking about their perceptions of the duration of their attention, their beliefs in various statements about our ability to focus and how they use technology today.
Half of the respondents thought that their duration of attention was less than before, compared to a quarter of those who did not. And three-quarters of the participants agreed that we are going through a time when there is constant competition for our attention from various media and news agencies.
Distractions caused by mobile phones in particular have proved to be a real problem. Half of the respondents admitted that they could not stop checking their phones when they should focus on other things – and this is a problem not only for young people. Despite the stereotypes of generations of teenagers glued to their screens, most middle-aged people have said they are also struggling with it.
And while many admitted to spending a lot of time on the phone, they still greatly underestimated how much. The average public opinion was that they checked their phones 25 times a day, but according to previous research, the reality is likely to be 49 to 80 times a day.
There has long been concern about the threat to attention posed by new cultural forms, be it social media or cheap sensational paperback novels of the 19th century. Back in ancient Greece, Socrates regretted that the written word creates “oblivion in our souls.” There has always been a tendency to fear the impact of new media and technology on our consciousness.
The reality is that we simply don’t have long-term research to say whether our collective focus has diminished. From our research we know that people overestimate some issues. For example, half of the respondents mistakenly believed the completely refuted statement that the average duration of attention among adults today is only eight seconds, allegedly worse than that of a goldfish. There really is no such thing as an average duration of attention. Our ability to focus varies greatly depending on the person and the task at hand.
It is also important not to lose sight of the many benefits that technology brings to our lives. The majority of the public acknowledged this, so while half believed that great technology and social networks spoil the attention of young people, about the other half believed that easy distraction is more related to people’s faces than the negative impact that technology may or may not have. to render. .
Also, is “distracted” attention always bad?
Two-thirds of the audience in our study believed that shifting focus between different media and devices impairs our ability to perform simple tasks – a belief confirmed by psychological research. Interestingly, half of the audience also believed that multitasking at work, frequent switching between email, phone calls and other tasks could create a more efficient and satisfying experience.
So what if we explore the benefits of distraction as well as the negative effects? Can we find a more balanced picture in which distraction is not always in itself bad, but a problem in certain contexts and productive in others? In other words, what if those who complain about the crisis of attention are not mistaken, but represent only part of the picture?
No matter what challenges we experience when our attention shifts between tasks, in some scenarios it can help refresh the mind, keep us alert, and stimulate communication and brain creativity. Combined attention may be an ideal, but it may not always be a realistic good for the type of animals we humans are.
We hear about the benefits to the body from “snacks” or circuit training, so perhaps we need to ask how we can use the potential benefits of “snacking attention” for consciousness. After all, the brain is a physical organ.
There is no doubt that we need to figure out how to live better with the “economy of attention” and that the monetization of our attention poses a serious challenge to us. However, our electronic gadgets are not disappearing anywhere and we need to learn to use them (and what they distract) for individual and public good.
Our focus has always been the only real currency we have, and for that reason we have always fought for it; it is not a new problem, but in the digital age it is taking new forms. We need a better response to this situation – one that understands the risks, but also more boldly asks questions about opportunities.