According to a recent study by Microsoft, humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. A goldfish has an attention span of 9 minutes; humans now have 8 which is a drop from the 12 minutes we had in the year 2000 and it is all because of our focus on technology and most especially our smartphones. We live in fast-paced world where you often have to read with your right eye while checking the stove with your left. The truth is we are constantly moving, constantly working and no matter how hard we try to juggle the balls, something has got to give; and it seems it is our ability to concentrate that is taking the heat. An attention span is an interval in which a person can concentrate on an object, idea or activity. So what that means is that we are losing our ability to concentrate as a race. What does this mean?
In 2000, we had lesser distractions, there were no smartphones to compete with our time, no social media, no buzz just the land line if you were that fortunate. I remember feeling so proud of myself whenever my dad asked me to pick up the land-line and receive a call. I remember feeling so enamored by this beautiful piece of technology that could literally get you across the world, little did I know what was to come, little did I know. Yet, I also remember days spent outside playing in the sand, nights outside listening to moon light tales; I remember not even feeling ‘bored’ even though we only watch TV for about 2 hours in a day. I remember looking forward to my time with the books, bent over a new classic I just picked out of my dad’s study and having absolutely no trouble concentrating. But today, 18 years down the line, I have to mentally fight to read a good book. I have to pull myself away from my phone and my chats to even write a few good words. So you will understand why that study stayed with me.
What is alarming though is how bad this affects the 21st century life especially of children. According to studies, our constant addiction to technology affects our brains and even its ability to function properly. We are raising a generation of children who find it hard to fully concentrate on anything yet the best ideas come when we are in our minds, plugged out, fully present which now seems to last just about eight minutes. We feed and encourage this ourselves though when we use technology as a baby sitter for the kids. Every time you give your baby girl your phone to play video games, every time you hand your baby boy the remote control to watch TV for hours and hours, you feed that problem. By limiting our kids to a virtual world, one that is full of glamour and simulation, we train children to constantly want the ostensible. They are no longer able to enjoy the mundane, they become drawn to this world of constant excitement that you give to them. And instead of learning to concentrate on just the one thing and learn, we leave the kids to play video games while watching a cartoon and listening to music right at the same time. Scientists have long since told us that multi tasking as we call it just means you are not concentrating on any one thing, and when you cannot be fully present, you cannot fully task the brain. All we are doing is creating a world where children are drawn to the virtual rather than the real and so in school, they cannot be fully present to learn because they are already ‘bored’. As Victoria Prooday , a director of a multidisciplinary center in Canada puts it, “ the inability to process lower levels of stimulation leaves kids vulnerable to academic challenges”.
Of course, at this point the child is quite unable to find the concentration to read a good book cover to cover without getting distracted by technology. It is why, more and more, teachers are complaining that kids are dropping literature and failing in the arts. They are less able to adapt to situations that will require lower simulation of the brain or what the layman will call, “the quiet “. Which of course means, they are going to be less creative and less artistic, having no patience for the simple joys of life. Unfortunately, a shorter attention span also affects our relationships. The inability to be present in a moment, to enjoy a moment with a friend without glancing at an email or a WhatsApp message saps the energy of friendship. To be a friend, a father, a human, you need to build a relationship and relationships are built on trust. Trust is earned. To earn trust, you have to have fulfilled a number of tasks, one of which will include listening. To truly listen, to understand another person, you need to concentrate, to read the message behind the words and of course it involves full concentration. You cannot be fully present while still glancing at your phone every five minutes or checking the time on your wrist watch every 20 second. Chances are your mind will be divided and a divided mind cannot really listen. You are going to have to process and enjoy the “ quiet “ to really listen. Building relationships take time and effort that will not always be as exciting as that new video game or as intriguing as a new action movie but it will be more satisfying and lasting. It may even change everything.
If I as a person who remembers a bit of what it felt like to be without distractions can still get totally distracted by technology, imagine how hard it must be for a person who grew up submerged in it. I think the lesson we take from that study is that we need to do better, get better at doing the things that actually sustain life, our relationships, our ability to enjoy the mundane, our friendships, our feelings, our thinking. In the words of the great Barbara Bush “Cherish your human connections – your relationship with friends and family.” This is the challenge before all of us as we cope with the relentless onslaught of technology on our attention span with deep negative repercussion for us all.
- Wale-Olaitan is with the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
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