We've entered a new era. 25% of teens forget major details about their family and close relatives. 7% of people forget their birthdays time to time. Only 50% of people fully read short articles with 100 or less words. What used to be a norm is now a rare occurrence.
I find it hard to maintain focus when reading a book, and I find it hard to stop when I’m scrolling through my Facebook news feed. Surprisingly enough, both of these phenomena are related. Research conducted by Microsoft Corp. shows that our recent decline to a mere 8-second attention span (from 12 seconds in 2000), one second shorter than that of a goldfish's, is largely attributed to the increasing prevalence of technology in our daily routines.
Now here’s the crazy part. Back in 1977, Nobel Prize-winning Herbert Simon predicted that in the future we would have excessive information at our fingertips. He forewarned us that copious information would consume “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” This “poverty of attention” that Simon refers to is the reason why we can no longer read books for hours on end, or finish an entire article without zoning out and losing focus. You may be asking yourself, why in the world would having easily-accessible information be detrimental to our attention span? Shouldn’t more information make us smarter?
This is where we step back, and aggregately take a look at the type of “information” that is most viewed today. It is the fast-paced texting done over smartphones, devices actively used everyday by 72% of the U.S teen population, that are mostly responsible for lowering our attention spans. The instant gratification received from reading a quick and easy line of text from a friend can’t be replicated by reading a descriptive article or a book. When you multiply the act of reading one text message by a hundred, and over a relatively short period of time, you get discontinuous bursts of superficial focus instead of the continuous, in-depth focus received from reading a book. Using your phone like this on a daily basis will slowly rewire your brain to be used to the instant pleasure and closure that reading a text gives you, and thus serves as the reason for why we zone out while reading books: the content comes gradually, and the purpose won’t be understood until many sentences are read without a break— pretty daunting for texters, right?
The U.S National Library of Medicine’s research confirmed this to be true by showing that 20% of online article views in 2015 were shorter than 4 seconds long. Furthermore, their research also revealed that only 4% of people viewed an article for over 10 minutes. This manifests the growing deficit in our attention span towards reading and other activities that require continuous and acute focus. We need to cut down on our fast-paced and repetitive acts of refreshing our inboxes, scrolling through our news feeds, and texting excessively.
In the future, we can prevent this decrease in attention by distancing ourselves from our devices when they aren’t necessary. It’s as simple as that. So let’s hope that the next time someone tells us to “pay attention”, we truly can.