Generation goldfish: Our online lives are having a detrimental impact on our attention spans

Generation goldfish: Our online lives are having a detrimental impact on our attention spans

By Aileen C O'Reilly

Flitting from one item to another online has reduced our attention spans to eight seconds – and it’s having a detrimental impact on our lives, says Aileen C. O’Reilly.

The attention span of a goldfish is famously limited — it’s nine seconds — and has long been cited as a byword for stupidity. But according to a study by Microsoft, the average human being now has an attention span of eight seconds, down from the not overly impressive 12 seconds of the year 2000.

Because of the internet and social media, the average office worker will check their email inbox 30 times every hour (yes, every two minutes) and will pick up their phones 1,500 times per week, amounting to three hours and 16 minutes a day.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger, are keeping 3.196bn of us busy daily (and nightly). We spend an average of two hours and 22 minutes socialising online each day, most of it on these six platforms.

Even aside from the increasing amount of our time that Twitter and Instagram are taking up, when we do make it online to check out an actual web page, we read, at most, 28% of the content during a visit, with 20% a more likely expectation.

The average page visit lasts just 10-20 seconds. Apart from social media, the repeated and increasing use of technology has shortened our longer-range attention span from 12 minutes to five. Constant news feeds and videos, which are 10 minutes or less, have rewired our brains.

People who are online an average of five hours a day have trouble remembering people’s names. Factor this in with actual work, eating, and getting to the office, and it’s probably not so surprising that our attention spans are dwindling.

So while we have access to the virtual ‘tree of knowledge’ that is the internet, and the means to make a well-informed argument without even opening a newspaper, are we capable of absorbing any of it, or are we all just obsessed with cranky faced cats and the latest batch of barely dressed nobodies pairing up in the ‘Love Island’ villa?

Not surprisingly, sociologists, psychologists, and teachers have warned of the phenomenon known as F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out), which fuels the drive to keep up-to-date on social media and breaking news, 24/7.

A new study, conducted by a team of European scientists from Technische Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, University College Cork, and DTU, focuses on the increasing rates of change within collective attention.

“It seems that the allocated attention in our collective minds has a certain size, but that the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed. This would support the claim that it has, indeed, become more difficult to keep up-to-date on the news cycle, for example,” says Professor Sune Lehmann, from DTU Compute.

However, while our diminishing attention spans probably should sound a foghorn, millennials (those aged 25 - 38) are able to work faster and on a number of different things at once, which can make them far more productive and valuable in the workplace.

They’re also more flexible, being able — and sometimes preferring — to juggle several projects, meaning you can throw something at them in the midst of other tasks and they will prioritise effectively.

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File image

They also highly value the latest technological tools. With the younger employees set to take over the workforce, companies and organisations will be forced to stay on top of the latest in tech to retain their millennial employees.

In fact, their (less than) goldfish attention spans mean that they may be harder to hold onto in general, so employers will need to put more work into attracting young, new talent, while retaining those they already have.

Meanwhile, traditional learning, and time spent in the classroom, is viewed as being ‘too slow’ by the future-focused Generation Zero (anyone born between 1995 and 2009).

By next year, Generation Z is expected to be the largest group of consumers worldwide, making up 40% of the market in the US, Europe, and BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and 10% in the rest of the world.

Gen Z has also become the most entrepreneurial generation in history. More than 60% of high school students say they would rather be entrepreneurs than employees, as do 43% of college students.

They are adept at watching trends develop and are choosing to create their own businesses over going to college, although doing both in tandem is not unusual these days.

One might be tempted to view this as inevitable evolution, except that it’s in the “downtime” where the cracks are now flourishing in these young entrepreneurs’ lives.

“We are living in the new era of 24/7 working beset by technology that doesn’t go off,” warns Dublin-based clinical psychologist Marie Walshe, who is busy helping young workers step off the merry-go-round and rebalance their hectic Insta-lives. “Our diminishing attention span is just one symptom of what is actually happening. She explains:

Both Millennial and Generation Zero population groups have created the ‘2-year career’. They live in the moment and make no long-term plans. It’s like mindfulness gone mad

“The current era, where technology is rarely turned off, has really serious implications, which are only starting to come to light now.

“These young people are no longer going into, or even looking for, long-term jobs. They are impulsive and are governed by the pleasure principle: if they do not like something in work, they leave.

“They are constantly on the move, looking for the next challenge, but the downside of this is that they are terribly ill-equipped when it comes to dealing with hardship or deprivation, which are character-building aspects of normal life.”

Walshe has noticed a steep increase in the number of 20- and 30-somethings self-referring to her clinic. Many of them are presenting with severe sleep disorders, which she directly links to their tech-laden lifestyle and 24/7 online obsession.

“Phones are kept by the bed, charging; messages are coming in during the night and are probably being checked when uninterrupted sleep is necessary purely for the mind to process the day’s information. There is no tech-free time for the brain to recoup.

“There is no pausing in their lives; no time for reflection. The herd instinct rules. The fact is they are wired noticeably differently from the previous generation; their temporal coordination is basically different and this is an issue which has to be addressed.

“In therapy, we think about time in a very different way. We allow for that necessary space between thinking and doing. We slow everything down; and they welcome it. They actually revel in it."

One can’t help wondering if, perhaps, it might be time to start charging that phone in another room.

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