Attending to our digital addiction

PhD student Katherine Wood of UCL’s Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology has used measures of how long users wait for a website to load up to quantify the otherwise difficult to determine attention span of human users. Since 2008, when the majority of internet connections were dial-up, our attention span has decreased from an average of 12 seconds to just 4 seconds (the equivalent to that of a bumble bee).Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 17.36.25We increasingly switch between forms of technological device and are subject to a fast-paced transfer and excess of information. Whenever we complete a switch or digital task our brain reacts to a biological release of dopamine causing us to experience emotions of reward and pleasure. For instance, we feel good when we empty our junk email folder or refresh our inbox and receive a new message. The world is experiencing a growing population of connectivity-addicts.

Such frenetic activity across devices within the digital sphere creates a sense of false productivity and makes us scanners rather than readers of literature and digital material (we are generalists not specialists). This, in itself, does not necessarily carry negative implications for health because we become increasingly good at coding information. Such rapid deciphering has been linked to augmenting our protection against dementia as we keep the brain alive through these constant levels of stimulation. However, we still need to mitigate the potentially damaging effects of false productivity.

Image credit: A Bow-Bertrand

Katherine Wood presenting at Countdown2030, UCL. Image credit: A Bow-Bertrand

Wood advises actively working to lengthen your attention span to at least to 27 seconds (or that of a dog which is the most ‘attentive’ member of the animal kingdom). Her proposed strategies unsurprisingly include the so-called ‘digital detox’, or a period of time in which a user refrains from using electronic connecting tools and devices in order to improve productivity in the social, face-to-face world. She describes this as practicing good attentional hygiene by allowing the brain to sit with itself without constantly reaching for a technological device. While daydreaming does not consciously occupy our attention, a lot of activity takes place subconsciously and is both restorative and productive.

So too, writers and digital producers (generating content for users) can utilise this cognisance of the modern attention span by making material ‘scannable’ rather than readable. This can be achieved by using:

  1. lists,
  2. subheadings and
  3. key words.

If our attention span has decreased to 4 seconds, then how do we maintain meaningful and developed interpersonal relationships? This is complicated because not all of our social interactions are face-to-face and we increasingly make links through social media but the quality of these is open to debate. In the age of Big Data and hyper-connectivity, we must all forcibly detach from our devices and the access they permit. This is crucial to managing productivity in both personal and professional fields and for prioritising mental self-care.


Image Credit: Daan Berg, Flickr

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