Last week, Microsoft released a study that sought to analyze the impact that technology – cellphones and social media specifically – is having on our attention span and the quality of our focus. They found some pretty significant changes compared with research conducted 15 years ago.
(Photo Credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com/Flickr)
This was a good-sized study, with data collected from surveys of more than 2,000 Canadian residents over the age of 18. Scientists also watched over 100 participants play games and interact online while recording their brain activity. Let’s take a look at the findings.
1. The average attention span has fallen to just eight seconds.
The average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds, and now it’s just eight. The decrease was found across genders and all age groups. Apparently, a goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. Measuring the attention span of animals is sort of tricky stuff though … so it’s possible we still have them beat. Either way, eight seconds feels like a stunningly short attention span, especially given the 33 percent decrease in just 15 years.
2. Young people were most likely to demonstrate addiction-like behaviors when it came to digital technology.
Seventy-seven percent of 18- to 24-year-olds responded “yes” when asked if the following statement was true for them: “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.” Only 10 percent of people over 65 said the same thing.
Additionally, more than half of the 18-24 group said they checked their phones at least every 30 minutes. And, 75 percent of them almost always use portable devices while they watch TV.
3. Young people may be more alert, just for shorter increments of time.
The good news is that these young people, “early adopters of technology,” as the study sometimes refers to them, have developed some strengths to accommodate for their shorter attention spans.
The report reads:
“While digital lifestyles decrease sustained attention overall, it’s only true in the long-term. Early adopters and heavy social media users front load their attention and have more intermittent bursts of high attention. They’re better at identifying what they want/don’t want to engage with and need less to process and commit things to memory.”
Michael Santoli, a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance, thinks advertisers can use the results to learn more about consumers.
“It means we’re very alert to stimuli in very short increments,” he said, “So you can kind of bombard people with more stuff. They might be more able to turn their attention to it.”
4. The ability to multitask has improved.
Part of the explanation for the shortened attention span comes from what the study refers to as “multi-screening” – viewing multiple screens at once, using social media while consuming the latest news, etc. As long as the environment is active, early tech adopters are able to process information and commit it to memory more efficiently. But, their capabilities fall short if the digital experience is passive – probably due to their decreased ability to focus for long periods of time. Still, at the end of the day, early adopters of technology (mostly folks under 30) have learned to process more in less time.
Tell Us What You Think
How has technology changed the way we focus? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.