Shorter attention span: the impact of technology on our brains

Is it any wonder our attention spans are becoming shorter?  You are probably not surprised to learn of this trend, when you consider our increasing exposure to technology, the burden of information overload and the dumbing down of the masses through mass media.  This trend was foreseen many years ago by Nobel winning economist, Herbert Simon.

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Herbert Simon 1977

The impact of screen technology

Particularly susceptible are the young.  They rely increasingly on social media to feed their vulnerable sense of self-esteem; and so they enter an addictive cycle of dependency on the feedback they receive through technology.  What has changed here is that in the past, they relied on feedback that came from face-to-face interaction with their friends and family.

Of course, it’s not only the young who are vulnerable to the effects of exposure to screen technology. Those of us who work long hours in front of a computer screen are also undergoing hidden changes to our brain function!  It’s a scary and sobering thought.

Susan Greenfield, British neuroscientist, writer and member of the House of Lords,  warns us that screen technology is having a significant impact on our malleable brains.  It is causing our brains to change the way they function.  She tells us that the human brain has evolved to its profound capacity due to its ability to learn and adapt to environment.  She tells us that our brains are malleable and are “substantially shaped by what we do to them and by the experience of daily life” 1..

It follows that our growing addiction to technology is altering the way we think and feel. (Our brains are responsible not only for conscious thought, but also for our emotional life) .

An article in the Australian Financial Review published in October 2012 on Business beware: technology shortcuts brain power quotes two leading international neuroscientists – Susan Greenfield and American child trauma expert Bruce Perry.  It seems that technology is affecting our brains, our feelings, and our self-image, sometimes in negative ways.

Proof that shorter attention span is linked to technology

A survey conducted in 2012 in the UK indicates that the attention spans of children are getting shorter. The survey polled 410 English teachers and 2000 parents of children aged between two and 11. The survey showed that 91 per cent of teachers believe children’s attention spans are becoming shorter as they opt for screen-based activities over conventional reading. “It’s the first proof of a link between shorter attention spans and technology,” Greenfield says.

A frightening decrease in empathy levels

How terrible is the following? A 2010 University of Michigan study has found college students have empathy levels that are 40 per cent lower than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait on 14,000 students over 30 years. The biggest drop has occurred since 2000, and the researchers suggest that possible factors are the rise of social media, masses of on-line information and video-games. (As quoted in the article in the Australian Financial Review published in October 2012 on Business beware: technology shortcuts brain power.)

A vicious circle: The Press perpetuates the problem

Can we say with certainty that the Press both understands that we have shorter attention spans, and contributes to the problem?   In May 2014, as reported in an article in the Guardian, Brian Carovillano, an executive of Associated Press issued a memo to instruct its reporters to file shorter stories.  Most stories should be between 300 and 500 words while the more important ones should be between 500 and 700 words. The reason given was that he “believes readers lack the attention span for long stories and that too much valuable time is being wasted by editors needing to cut lengthy copy.”  How is that for a self-perpetuating cycle – the mass media which has contributed to creating our shorter attention spans is now reacting to the situation by producing media that feeds and perpetuates our shorter attention spans.  Where will this cycle end, and at what cost to quality writing?

[By the way, this article is 781 words long or 812 words including this comment.  I tried but failed to condense it to 700 words without sacrificing what I considered important points.]

So what is “attention span”?

According to Psychology Today,

“Attention span refers to the amount of time we can focus on a task before we start to ‘zone out’. Although a distracting background or a really boring lecture/meeting can definitely make anyone’s attention span run thin, for some people focusing on even the simplest of tasks for a few moments can be torture.”

Well, congratulations on reading this far.  I would say you definitely don’t have a problem with short attention span.  Still, if you want to test yourself you can take an attention span test here !

See also:

1. “Modern technology is changing the way our brains work” By SUSAN GREENFIELD.

About Jana Brech

Hi, my name is Jana Brech. I live in Brisbane, Australia. After 20+ years in the IT industry as an Analyst/Programmer, I have a passion for Usability. I love good design. Drop me a note to say hi, or leave a comment. Web Consulting, Expert Reviews

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  1. Kristian  January 28, 2015

    i love this

  2. Angus McLauchlan  November 21, 2015

    Excellent article- Oh look a funny cat video!

    • Jana Brech  November 28, 2015

      Hi Angus
      Thanks for your comment and for the heads up re related videos showing unexpected results. I turned the feature off. Much better now 🙂

  3. fran  April 16, 2016

    thank you! I’m doing a research on attention span, this helps me a lot.

    • Jana Brech  April 19, 2016

      Glad to hear it was helpful. Are you doing research, as in a university project? Or are you just researching the subject for an essay? I’d be interested to learn about any formal research projects being conducted, and the results!

  4. sweater hoodie  May 10, 2016

    What’s up, just wanted to say, I loved this post.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!

  5. Not telling you my name  October 17, 2016

    Thank you this article really helped my science fair project! I hope you have a great day!

  6. Sara Catherine Blaise  January 27, 2017

    I read this as I am just signing off on social media for a few months so I can walk myself outside more, read more books, write more poetry and beat the information highway by a mile.

    Thanks for the serendipitous post. HooHah!

    • Jana Brech  January 27, 2017

      Good for you, Sara Catherine! It sounds like a great formula for overcoming the impact of screen technology! Perhaps you can let us know whether you’ve felt the benefits after a while.

  7. Sascha Rutledge  February 28, 2017

    we need to recognize that use of the internet and digital technology has cognitive and social benefits and to balance these against any risks

    • Jana Brech  March 1, 2017

      Good point, Sascha. Thanks for adding your comment.


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